Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Best Age Difference for Husband and Wife?

By marrying a woman 15 years younger, preindustrial Sami men maximized their surviving offspring
By David Biello

Men marry younger women and women prefer to marry older men, in general. But is it culture, genetics or the environment that drives such a choice—and is there an optimal age difference? New research shows that, at least for the Sami people of preindustrial Finland, men should marry a woman almost 15 years their junior to maximize their chances of having the most offspring that survive.

"We studied how parental age difference at marriage affected [families'] reproductive success among Sami people who married only once in their lifetime[s]," says ecologist Samuli Helle of the University of Turku in Finland. "We found that marrying women 14.6 years younger maximized men's lifetime reproductive success—in other words, the number of offspring surviving to age 18."

Ah, so them Sephardis may have a method to their madness... It's not unusual for Sephardic girls to get married before they're done with highschool - to guys in their 30s.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Oh, what's in a name?

I'm being troubled lately by the huge imposition which the label of "Orthodox" implies. It's true that I've typically used it on my blog to refer to the standard (little c) conservative system of belief, but that actually may be unfair to the rather sizeable portion of people who may identify as Orthodox but do not hold to that system.

And then practically the issue is what ought I call myself. I don't like labels since they only serve to restrict your thinking, but I know I don't fit into any of the categories currently out there in the Jewish world. And I've never really had to worry about this for myself since I don't tend to publicize my views - but as time goes on, more and more curious people play the role of the clever detective and figure me out. So anyway, sure, I take some inspiration from R' Kaplan, but I'm no Reconstructionist. I take some from R' Heschel, but I doubt I would be comfortable in his shul. I take some from R' Soloveitchik and R' Feinstein, but surely with some reservations. I even take plenty from the likes of the Ramchal and the Rambam - but obviously not everything. So what am I?

Sometimes I (half) jest and call myself Post-Denominational. But that's next to meaningless. I also jest sometimes and call myself "Modern orthodox" (big M, small o). But truly speaking, I do suspect that the most accurate label for me might just be where I started from all that time ago, in those years before blogs. A grand Hegelian cycle. And that is Modern Orthodox. Sure, not in the same half-understood sense that I thought back then, but in the truer sense of what Modern Orthodoxy theoretically holds itself to be - a no-holds barred engagement with modernity while maintaining our regular Halacha and traditions. (Though I am sympathetic to Yehudi Hilchati's notions on this topic.)

See, I believe, like so many others in the program of Judaism and the system of Halacha. True, I do take issue with a number of figures who hold positions of authority and some Halachic conclusions they've reached, but at the same time the system has proven the test of time and I'm in no position to buck it.

Now, is it a great label? No. And is there great contestation of what it means? Sure. But like all labels imposed on humankind, the true humans can only approximate into which groups they believe they sit.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Medical Insurance Madness

It's very interesting how one of the primary reasons why those who oppose a national health care plan is because of the believed increased costs and taxation that will go with it. But most people don't seem to realize that per capita the US government already spends more on health care than most other developed countries, including England, France and Canada. It's beaten only by Iceland, Norway, Monaco and Luxemborg (2004 figures). That money comes from your tax dollars and it covers only covers 45% of total health care costs. That's right. You are already getting taxed more than those other nations and are getting only 45% of their return.

On top of that, total US expenditure for the rest of that 55% comes from private insurance, out of pocket, etc. So the total per capita costs in America are 50% - 100% more than what they pay total in other developed nations. You are getting doubly reamed for a medical service that nationally has poorer showings in many respects than those other countries.

In essence, you are already paying the same (or more) taxes for socialized medicine as other nations but are not getting the benefits from it.

Private insurance systems are for profit and do not work for your interests. Additionally, people who cannot afford simple, cheap care for medical problems will do without and will then wait until they need to go to the ER when their costs can be absurdly high. Who do you think foots the bill there? Either US governments who pay for it through taxes or rising medical costs which get passed to you anyway.

As long as we're living in a society which isn't really willing to refuse people medical care, then you are de facto living in a socialized state. You just pay for it in an incredibly inefficient way which raises medical costs, worsens public health and has the private insurance people laughing all the way to the bank as they skim significant administrative costs off the top.

Another big issue that people take are with are with wait times. They hear horror stories of waiting periods in the months for simple medical tests. Now while these are sometimes true, they are most often exaggerations and are typically for optional medical procedures. But in any case, the correct way to look at the issue is essentially through a moral view. Obviously there are limited medical resources so the question is how they get parsed out. In a system like ours, wait times are often kept to a minimum because poor people just aren't getting the care they need. They don't even get on line. It's only because poor people are suddenly are in the waiting rooms that richer people find they have to wait a little longer.

So essentially, the choice is between giving poor people health care or keeping it from them. Wait times are the inevitable effect of having more people able to acquire medical care.

Now, I'm not arguing that having a single-payer system is without its drawbacks. It does invite over-use of the system because if it's free then people will be more eager to use it - even when they really don't need to. It also invites higher expenses in the system in some respects because when given an option between a cheap proven drug and the new expensive one, if people aren't paying for the difference then they're far more likely to choose the more expensive one.

But these are not incredibly difficult deal breaking issues. They can be dealt with in other ways, but the overall view of the US medical system in view of economics and morality seems to fall heavily on the side of a single-payer system. The for-profit insurance companies work at cross-purposes to actual medical care since they only care about profits while, simply, good medical care can be expensive. And a lot of people in need are either given the run around to save costs, are dropped from service or simply cannot get coverage in the first place. Competition for medical insurance drives up costs for administration, advertisement and political "gifts" that have nothing to do with medicine. It's simply a bad system.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Religious Pluralism in the 12th Century

Know then ... nothing prevents God from sending into His world whomsoever He wishes, since the world of holiness sends forth emanations unceasingly ... Even before the revelation of the Law He sent prophets to the nations ... and again after its revelation nothing preventing Him from sending to them whom He wishes so that the world might not remain without religion ... Mohammed was a prophet to them but not to those who preceded them in the knowledge of God ... He permitted to every people something which He forbade to others, and He forbade to them something which He permitted to others, for He knoweth what is best for His creatures and what is adapted to them ... He therefore sends prophets in every age and period that they might urge the creatures to serve Him and do the good, and that they might be a road-guide to righteousness ... Not one people remained without a law, for all of them are from one Lord and unto Him they all return...

-From Bustan al-Ukul (The Garden of Wisdom) by Nathanael ibn al-Fayyumi, leader of the Yemenite Jews of the 12th century and, interestingly, the father of the addressee of the Rambam's famous Iggeret Teiman. [See here, pages 103-109]

This is very notable as a stunning statement of religious pluralism. In this view, God sends out prophets to different peoples with different levels of religious instruction as appropriate for their level of progress or inherent natures. And this is happening all the time - a continuous revelation.

A little philosophical tweaking here and there and we see a common theme of theology across many different peoples where the superficial religious traditions of a people are key to their identity and uniquely appropriate for them, but are without fundamental differences in the underlying truth common to all religious traditions.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Fast Healthy

WebMD says: Fasting on a regular basis may protect against heart disease, researchers report.

In a study of more than 4,500 men and women, people who fasted were 39% less likely to be diagnosed with coronary artery disease than those who didn't fast. Coronary artery disease was defined as having at least 70% narrowing or blockage in at least one coronary artery.

Though more than 90% of the people studied were Mormons, the findings held true even in those who had a different religious preference, says Benjamin D. Horne, PhD, director of cardiovascular and genetic epidemiology at Intermountain Medical Center in Salt Lake City.
The researchers did not put any time frame on fasting, but Horne notes that "among [Mormons], religious teachings involve fasting on the first Sunday of every month for 24 hours."

Personally, I've always kinda liked the six (or seven) fasts that Judaism has around the year. Some are particularly well timed (I'm thinking particularly of Tzom Gedalia and Ta'anit Esther) to seemingly balance out nearby holidays of heavy eating.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Reflections in Sanskrit

Ishvara (Sanskrit Īśvara ईश्वर "lord, master", from an adjective īśvara "capable") is a philosophical concept in Hinduism, meaning controller or the Supreme controller (i.e. 'God') in a monotheistic sense or as an Ishta-Devata of monistic thought. Ishvara is also used to denote a "lord" in a temporal sense, as any master or king (a dual usage also found in English).


Advaitism [a school of Hindu philosophy] holds that when human beings think of Brahman, the Supreme Cosmic Spirit is projected upon the limited, finite human mind and appears as Ishvara. Therefore, the mind projects human attributes, such as personality, motherhood, and fatherhood on the Supreme Being. An interesting metaphor is that when the "reflection" of the Cosmic Spirit falls upon the mirror of Maya (Māyā; the principle of illusion, which binds the mind), it appears as the Supreme Lord. God (as in Brahman) is not thought to have such attributes in the true sense. However it may be helpful to project such attributes onto God — the myriad names and forms of God one finds in Hinduism are all human-constructed ways for approaching the divine.


Compare with this:

[W]e may promote certain conceptions about God that are valid in the sense of the lessons they teach without actually being technically true. Where fundamentalists fail is by essentially fetishizing the lessons by branding them as literal truth. The truth of the matter is that we know very little about the nature of the ultimate reality and so even while you might consider such an admission an evasion, it remains a key fact to understand.

On a personal note, another key realization is to understand that a skeptic's approach to religion need not always be a matter of confrontation.

What I conceive about God is hard to put in words. I have conflicting notions and ideas that are not yet fully developed - assuming they may one day be. But, fundamentally, I consider God to be the ground of being of existence - the source for existence itself. God is the source of order which makes rational existence as we know it possible.

But does God 'think'? Does God have 'knowledge'? Is God 'good'? These things sound like anthropomorphizations to me. Nevertheless, they may be useful approaches to the transcendent, even though they are flawed. We are limited beings, but just because we haven't figured out what's going on 'up there' doesn't mean that we can ignore it.

It's nice to see one's own ideas reflected in the wisdom of others'.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Take a Hint from the East

Hinduism is a very rich and complex religion. Each sect is like a denomination with rich religious practices. Professional priestly brahmins have denominations like Shaivism, Shaktism, Vaishnavism, and Smartha. Each of these four denominations share rituals, beliefs, traditions and personal Gods with one another, but each denomination has a different philosophy on how to achieve life's ultimate goal (moksa, liberation) and different views of the Gods. Each follows different methods of self-realization and worships different aspects of the One Supreme God. However, each respects and accepts all others, and conflict of any kind is rare. Among Hindu followers as a whole, there is a strong belief that there are many paths leading to the One God or the Source, whatever one chooses to call that ultimate Truth.
The presence of different denominations and schools within Hinduism should not be viewed as a schism. On the contrary, there is no animosity between the schools. Instead there is a healthy cross-pollination of ideas and logical debate that serves to refine each school's philosophy. It is not uncommon, or disallowed, for an individual to follow one school but take the point of view of another school for a certain issue.

Although Hinduism has obvious differences from Judaism it still is, in some important ways, very much like Judaism. Like Judaism, it is a People first and a Religion second. It is all pervasive with ethics, rituals, values and beliefs underlying and directing all aspects of life. It has many different religious beliefs (albeit with more diversity than Judaism) but it is the constancy of orthopraxy which maintains its identity. They are both heritage-minded, non-exclusionary (i.e. Jews and Hindus both believe that non-adherents can still 'get into Heaven') and generally non-proselytizing.

It is therefore of no surprise - and frankly long overdue - that each community should finally recognize the other as natural allies in terms of how each religion intersects with communal life. (Not to mention politically as well, since both Israel and India are at the front lines of the confrontation with Islamic extremism.) In February there was a Hindu-Jewish summit in New Delhi where they met to officially recognize just that.

Anyway, I think we might have more to gain from our Hindu cousins in respect with how they manage a co-existence of very different ideas while not being much for heresy hunting. A similar approach could be applied for a reconstruction of modern pluralistic Judaism. Excerpts from here:

In the case of most religions, beliefs and practices come first, and those who subscribe to them are acknowledged as followers. In the case of the Hindu tradition, however, the acknowledgment of Hindus came first, and their beliefs and practices constitute the contents of the religion.
The Hindu tradition encourages Hindus to seek spiritual and moral truth wherever it might be found, while acknowledging that no creed can contain such truth in its fullness and that each individual must realize this truth through his or her own systematic effort. Our experience, our reason, and our dialogue with others—especially with enlightened individuals—provide various means of testing our understanding of spiritual and moral truth. And Hindu scripture, based on the insights of Hindu sages and seers, serves primarily as a guidebook. But ultimately truth comes to us through direct consciousness of the divine or the ultimate reality. In other religions this ultimate reality is known as God. Hindus refer to it by many names, but the most common name is Brahman.
A Hindu is thus identified by a dual exclusion. A Hindu is someone who does not subscribe to a religion of non-Indian origin, and who does not claim to belong exclusively to another religion of Indian origin—Buddhism, Jainism, or Sikhism. This effort at definition produces a rather artificial distinction between Hinduism and other dharmic traditions, which stems from an attempt to limit a system that sees itself as universal to an identity that is strictly religious.
Various schools have contributed to Hindu thought, each school with a different emphasis. The school known as Vedanta has been the standard form of intellectual Hinduism. According to Vedanta, the highest aim of existence is the realization of the identity or union of the individual’s innermost self (atman) with the ultimate reality. Although Vedanta states that this ultimate reality is beyond name, the word Brahman is used to refer to it.

Whether this ultimate reality is itself ultimately without distinguishing attributes (nirguna) or with personal attributes (saguna) has been a subject of extensive debate among Hindu scholars. To be ultimate Brahman must transcend (exist above and beyond) all limiting attributes, such as name, gender, form, and features. But how can the human mind, with its limitations, conceive of this transcendent reality? Human comprehension requires a more personal reality, with attributes.

Saguna Brahman is also called Ishvara, a name best translated as "Lord." A quotation attributed to 8th-century Hindu scholar Shankara illustrates the subtlety of these ideas: "Ishvara, forgive these three sins of mine: that although you are everywhere I have gone on a pilgrimage, although you are beyond the mind I have tried to think of you; and although you are ineffable [indescribable] I offer this hymn in praise of you."
How do we proceed if we wish to rise toward Brahman? Hindu thought takes the personality of the seeker as the starting point. It divides human personalities into types dominated by physicality, activity, emotionality, or intellectuality. The composition of our personality intuitively predisposes us to a type of yoga—that is, a path we might follow to achieve union with Brahman. Although many people associate the word yoga with a physical discipline, in its original Hindu meaning yoga refers to any technique that unites the seeker with the ultimate reality.

While physical fitness buffs may seek such a union by practicing hatha yoga, people with different personality traits have other choices. For the action-oriented person there is karma yoga, the yoga of action, which calls for a life of selfless deeds and actions appropriate to the person’s station in life. For the person of feeling, bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, calls for unconditional love for a personal divinity. For the person of thought, jñana yoga, the yoga of knowledge, calls for spiritual and physical discipline intended to bring direct insight into ultimate reality. The yogas do not represent tightly sealed compartments, merely convenient classifications. A well-balanced personality might well employ all four. These yogas are sometimes called margas (paths), suggesting that the same destination can be approached by more than one route, and indeed by more than one mode of travel.
Hindus consider all of creation worthy of worship, and thus religious activity in Hinduism takes many forms. Rituals may be performed by the individual, the family, the village, the community or region; at home or in a temple; and frequently or infrequently. The prevalence and persistence of Hindu ritual may well provide the stabilizing factor in a tradition that is so flexible in doctrine. Ritual might even be considered the glue that holds Hindus and Hinduism together. Many rites and observances that Hindus practice daily have come down from ancient times. Others grew up around the lives and teachings of Hindu saints and sages. While details of rituals may differ from region to region and jati to jati, their meaning and central practices have remained consistent over vast distances of time and space.

Virtually all rituals in Hinduism possess multiple meanings, including symbolic interpretations. Even the way Hindus regularly greet each other may be regarded as symbolically bowing to the divine. The Hindu greeting involves pressing the palms of the hands together, which symbolizes the meeting of two people; placing the hands over the heart where Brahman dwells, indicating that one meets the self in the other; bowing the head in recognition of this meeting; and saying namaste, a Sanskrit word that means "I bow to you" and signifies "I bow to the divine in you."

So are there differences? Sure. But perhaps it is no coincidence that in Hebrew, Hudi and Yehudi are only separated by one letter.

Monday, October 22, 2007

On Obligation

This is a bit of a sticky issue. How can the movements of Judaism which do not recognize the divine authority of the mitzvot or the standing of rabbis to declare judgment in Halacha still maintain a sense of obligation to Jewish heritage and traditional Jewish practices? What is the place of Halacha in a philosophy that does not recognize divine law? Simply, on what basis can liberal Judaism make requirements on their constituents?

A major problem of Reform and Conservative Judaism is the apparent "anything goes" approach to Jewish practice and belief which leads to a free for all and disintegration of Jewish identity and community. This approach is based on the ill-conceived idea that people will leave Judaism entirely if they feel the least bit chaffed by obligations that do not suit them, yet it is those people who are most likely to be committed to Judaism which then feel little for it because it requires nothing of them. Judaism becomes meaningless. Liberal movements tend to play towards the lowest common denominator in order to create the biggest tent, but ultimately this backfires as the content of Judaism is lost in empty aphorisms and continually dated political efforts. The process promotes a weakness in Judaism to which even committed Jews have trouble finding tangible connection.

So I have an approach which is akin to some Reconstructionist approaches where it is Jewish heritage itself that makes claims on each Jew. A committed - religious - Jew is one who delves into the richness of our history, religious evolution and traditional practices in order to make a home for themselves in our heritage - and, most importantly, is keen on passing on that sense of patrimony to the next generation. The idea is that one is not just a passive receiver of a heritage, but one has an obligation to maintain it, make it one's own and pass it on. The mandate is to build a Jewish philosophy, a Jewish family and a Jewish community. This necessarily applies to both individuals and the larger collective as the goals cannot be met by a kahal without individual interest, nor can an individual best express his Jewishness without communal life.

B. Spinoza elsewhere lambasted this approach as being little more realistic than divine obligation. That a heritage cannot create an obligation. I disagree (obviously). A Jew is defined by his heritage - since it is only our heritage which makes us different from any goy on the street and therefore it is by our heritage that we can judge whether a person is a good or a bad Jew. First and foremost is how importantly a Jew considers his heritage to be - indeed, how important a Jew believes it is to be a Jew. Any individual Jew may be a great person, but if he doesn't take his heritage seriously and doesn't care to pass it onto his children, then he (I'm sorry to say) simply isn't a great Jew.

Now I believe that once a person really takes his identity seriously, a next step is to follow a way of life that best exemplifies the values so accepted. Following some approximation of traditional Jewish practice - orthopraxy - seems like an ideal fit to me. What precisely the borders of Halacha ought to be in such a state is essentially a matter of politics, though some general principles need to be followed in order for communities to coherently exist. Personally I tend towards relatively more conservative realizations of Jewish practice, but these are details.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Rabbi Schachter (effectively) Forbids Jewish Surgeons

Rabbi Hershel Schachter (Rosh HaYeshiva of RIETS) says:

"There is a terrible misconception that the laws of Shabbos do not apply to doctors. This is absolutely incorrect. No profession exempts anyone from any mitzvos. Medical students are certainly not exempt from Shabbos observance. And even after having completed his school years, the future doctor must take special care to make sure he has a Sabbath-observant residency. If this can not be arranged, the student must simply look for a different profession."

That's a pretty strong statement there. And since there are some fields of medicine that don't really offer such residencies, is R' Schachter saying that an Orthodox Jew cannot realistically become, say, a surgeon or a cardiologist? (Though if anyone does know of a shomer-shabbos surgical residency, I'd be interested to hear about it.)

Clearly, though, there are plenty of observant doctors today who did go through residencies that were not particularly Shabbos friendly - so what gives? Are all these people in error?

Compare the above with the responsum of Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Halpern of Shaare Zedek:

Question: I am a medical student in the United States and am in the process of choosing a residency. Here in the States, there are some specialties in which one can obtain a residency that does not require working on Shabbos (eg, internal medicine, pediatrics, psychiatry and radiology), whereas there are other specialties where working on Shabbos is a requirement (eg, general surgery, OB/Gyn, urology, cardiology). Is it permissible to pursue training in one of these latter fields in the United States?

Answer: It is preferable to train in a Shomer-Shabbat program. If one feels very strongly that he can best serve as a physician in a field which has no such program, it is permissible to train in a regular program. However, one should be very knowledgeable concerning the laws of Shabbat, which is quite a complicated matter.

Looks like Rabbi Dr. Halpern takes a much more reasonable approach. It seems obvious to me, however, that Halachic conflicts are almost inevitable when working in any field on Shabbos but that shouldn't be reason enough to make people turn their back on what otherwise could be their calling, especially when the unimpeachable goal is to save human life and/or to better the quality of life for those who are suffering. As the famous saying goes, I'm not maikil on hilchot Shabbos, I'm machmir on hilchot pikuach nefesh!

I never liked the idea that Halacha is a barrier to the success of man. What it is (or should be), is taking a different approach through life that allows you to get to the same destination - but as a Jew.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A Charging Metaphor for Metaphysics

To Lubab No More on fundamentalism and the skepticism of simple absolute truths:

The way God is often described is designedly so simple that a child can understand it. And, like most fields of knowledge, simplification is good for handing over important ideas but not for an in depth study. Oversimplification leads to blurring of the complexities which lead to apparent contradiction.

As a case in point - does water conduct electricity? You probably learned in kindergarten that yes, it does very much! and you need to be very careful when around water and a live current.

But actually that's misleading. I mean it's practically true, but if you then study some chemistry you'd question how H2O passes current - it shouldn't by itself since it's an uncharged molecule. Contradiction! What is actually passing current are the _impurities_ in the water. The salts, the minerals, etc. The charge bounces off of them.

So then you may be happy with that level of understanding, but then you learn that even pure water conducts electricity a little bit. How can that be? That contradicts the last explanation! What is actually happening in water is that the molecules don't just sit around quietly but they are somewhat unstable. Some portion of them are constantly breaking apart into H+ and OH- and then reassembling themselves. So it is those transient ions on which charge flows.

See the kindergarten-level understanding of water and electricity isn't wrong per se, it's just oversimplified. The lesson is very important to pass along without all of that other complication even though you miss a great deal of further understanding in the process.

Now that was just about water. Maybe (kal v'chomer) the same kind of process applies to the God you were taught about in kindergarten too, hmm?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Some Perspective

A favourite saying of the Rabbis of Jabneh was: I am God's creature and my fellow is God's creature. My work is in the town and his work is in the country. I rise early for my work and he rises early for his work. Just as he does not presume to do my work, so I do not presume to do his work. Will you say, I do much and he does little? We have learnt: One may do much or one may do little; it is all one, provided he directs his heart to heaven.

Brachot 17a

Seems to me like those Yavneh rabbis had a better appreciation for non-kollelites than do some segments of contemporary Judaism.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

On Ethics:

I wrote this to GH for his recent post as a musing on the nature of ethics:

The issue with ethics is always the profit motive. If I can profit by being unethical, why shouldn't I?

The answer must be that in some way the 'profit' actually comes at a steeper cost.

The other issue is where one's ethical standards come from in the first place. How do we know they are valid? Subjective ethics do not work because they can only justify how you act, but you cannot use them to criticize the acts of others.

Orthodoxy has answers to these questions, but skepticism makes those answers impotent.

My answers: I value my own ethical integrity and that integrity is worth more to me than any monetary gain or whatever. I also believe that ethics are essentially discovered by mankind as codes that lead to good or bad things for people in society and society in general. We can tell whether an ethic is valid by observing its fruit.

But such experiments, as it would be, are tough to explore in many cases and so we must practically rely on the sustained wisdom of the ages, the sentiments of gifted individuals, and ultimately our own judgement.

The final issue is why should we even care about being ethical at all? Most people care about morality intuitively - an integral part of being human is caring about other people, but I have little to say that could convince a nihilist.

A Midrash on Moshe and Metaphysics

R' Abbahu said: All the forty days that Moses was on high, he kept on forgetting the Torah he learnt. He then said: 'Lord of the Universe, I have spent forty days, yet I know nothing.' What did God do? At the end of the forty days, He gave him the Torah as a gift, for it says, AND HE GAVE UNTO MOSES. Could then Moses have learnt the whole Torah? Of the Torah it says: The measure thereof is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea (Job 11:9); could then Moses have learnt it all in forty days? No; but it was only the principles thereof which God taught Moses.

-Exodus Rabbah 41:6

This is an interesting midrash. The most striking point is that it says that God only taught Moshe the principles of the Torah - which runs contrary to the typical Orthodox perspective that God revealed all of the Torah and all of the Oral Law to him. But secondly, there's the point that "Torah" is defined here not as the Pentateuch, but through the reference in Job which uses "The measure..." to describe the mysteries and (non)limits of God - "Torah" is then defined essentially as all metaphysical truth of God's ways.

Job 11:
7 "Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?
8 They are higher than the heavens—what can you do? They are deeper than the depths of the grave—what can you know?
9 Their measure is longer than the earth and wider than the sea.

So what is the midrash saying that Moshe received at Sinai? He received the principles of metaphysical truth.

For those of a skeptical bent who yet still recognize wisdom in the scriptures, this may be a helpful perspective in one's approach to Judaism.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

It's Rosh Hashanah...isn't it?

Here's an interesting little tidbit I stumbled upon recently. Rosh Hashanah this year begins Wednesday night, but the molad - the timing of the new moon - is early Wednesday morning. See, on an otherwise unmolested calendric system the molad would determine the day of Rosh Hashanah as beginning Tuesday night (as then the molad would actually occur on the first day of Rosh Hashanah) but the traditional calendric system has several different reasons for why the date for Rosh Hashanah can be pushed off for a day or two.

They go into it simply here:

Once the date of the Molad Tishrei has been calculated, some additional considerations must be taken into account to determine the actual date of Rosh HaShanah. These considerations may cause the actual date of 1 Tishrei to be postponed from the date of the Molad Tishrei. There are four such postponements:

First, if the time of the Molad Tishrei is later than 18 hours from the beginning of the day, Rosh HaShanah is postponed to the next day. This probably accounts for the fact that the young moon could not have been observed until the next day.

Second, for common years only, if the Molad Tishrei falls on a Tuesday, and is later than 9 hours and 204 halakhim from the start of the day, Rosh HaShanah is postponed to the next day. This rule prevents a situation in which the postponements for the next year would require the year to be 356 days long.

Third, for years following leap years only, if the Molad Tishrei falls on a Monday, and is later than 15 hours and 589 halakhim from the start of the day, Rosh HaShanah is postponed to the next day. This rule prevents a situation that would require the previous year to be only 382 days long.

Finally, if Rosh HaShanah would fall on Sunday, Wednesday, or Friday, it is postponed to the next day. In combination with one of the above postponements, Rosh HaShanah could be postponed by as much as two days. This postponement prevents certain holidays from falling on the Sabbath.

The site also has a neat number crunching program that tells you when each of the above situations affect a given year's schedule and the rescheduled date for Rosh Hashanah.

Anyway, so the first three issues are essentially practical concerns to keep the entire system from going off kilter, but what really interests me is the last means of postponement. See, what it is referring to is the postponement rule of Lo ADU Rosh which is a mnemonic name, aleph, dalet, vuv to indicate that if the molad falls on the first, fourth or sixth day of the week then Rosh Hashanah is to be delayed. But why those days of the week? What's the significance?

So the Talmud says (Rosh Hashanah 20a) that the reason for the Wednesday and Friday rule is so that Yom Kippur doesn't fall out on either side of Shabbos and it's pushed off from Sunday because otherwise Hoshanah Rabbah can fall out on Shabbos (Sukkah 43a). So the Gemaras continue, respectively, explaining that having Shabbos and Yom Kippur after one another is bad either because then the dead may have to wait two days before burial and/or that food will go bad and that if Hoshanah Rabbah falls on Shabbos then people will be unable to perform the classic aravot beating.

Now, I find this really remarkable for a couple of reasons. The first reason is due to the fact that they seemed to think it was alright to mess around with the whole calender - and the dates of all the holidays - for what is essentially ritual convenience! In the pre-calculated system the molad would happen when the molad would happen and you couldn't just change around the dates at will. Yom Kippur no doubt _did_ fall out on Friday and Sunday on a regular basis. And even more than that, to ensure that people far from Jerusalem were observing the correct date for the holiday they kept two days yom tov - and yet here we are messing around with the holy times for convenience! It is really amazing.

Secondly, if the reason Yom Kippur was so moved was so that two days of Shabbos didn't follow one another - what would those Amoraim make of today's three days yom tov/Shabbos in a row?! But besides that, even within the calculated system, Pesach comes up against Shabbos pretty regularly - as it does this year - and Shavuous too regularly does the same. So I'm not even sure I understand their reasoning. Do the dead not have to wait the same two days? In any case, I'd much rather have it set up so that Pesach can never begin on a Saturday night rather than Yom Kippur getting that special concern.

Lastly, I'd like to say a few words about the molad itself. The molad was initially figured out by eye witnesses and was taken very seriously as the Mishnah and Gemara report in great detail. Indeed, witnesses could break the Shabbos to travel to the court to make sure that the molad was set on it's proper time. But as that system became impractical the molad was calculated into a calendric system that could operate independently of witness' sitings. So the molad was calculated to be 29 days 12 hours and 44+1/18 minutes after the previous molad (possibly taken from Ptolemy), which was actually very accurate. But the problem is that due to tidal effects between the Earth and Moon, the mean time for the Moon's orbit is now _less than_ what it was in Hillel II's day. The difference is about 0.6 seconds each month and the accumulated molad has by now gained almost 100 minutes on the actual molad that witnesses would report.

The consequence of this is that today the calculated molads are no longer somewhere between Israel and Babylon as it was during the Talmudic period. Now they are calculating a molad that happens somewhere over Afghanistan! And with a difference of over 100 minutes (out of 1440 minutes in day) that means that the molad is calculated to be on the _wrong day_ about 7% of the time! Link

Now that's some weird stuff, isn't it?

I guess I'll just leave this off with wishing all my readers a shana tovah umetukah and a pleasant Rosh Hashanah....assuming it actually is Rosh Hashanah, of course.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Members of a Different Tribe

Over the past some time I've come to realize a growing appreciation for the stories of the Native Americans, their respective cultures and their resilience in the historical face of institutional prejudice and persecution. The Indian identities are focused around the tribe. They each have their sacred, ancestral lands, their respective religious beliefs and their own languages. And their greatest concerns in modern times are how to maintain the traditions of their ancestors in order to perpetuate their tribal identities. If we then understand that the Jew is essentially a tribal creature then it becomes clear that we fit right along that kind of social structure. Not perfectly though, since the vagaries of history have warped our tribal order, but it is still easily recognizable.

In many ways their stories remind me of our stories, as Jews have been likewise persecuted down the ages - and often for similar reasons. Sadly, in the typical American history education, the many injustices against the Indians are glossed over. But they had been repeatedly lied to through treaty violations, exiled far from their homes, been at the mercy of government sponsored massacres and were the objects of forced institutional assimilation. So think outside the box for a moment, doesn't the Trail of Tears and the Long Walk remind you of certain episodes in Jewish history? Were the originally tiny reservations so different from the European ghettos? Are the massacres really no different from a pogrom?

It's a little strange to think about, but from the Cherokee's perspective Andrew Jackson could be their Nebuchadnezzar.

Keep in mind too that I do not intend on equating these events. This is not a contest for who suffered the most, but an attempt to show some mirrors of history which promote a greater understanding and appreciation for the histories of others as well as our own.

A few friends (all modern to right-wing Orthodox) and I visited Phoenix a couple of weeks ago and we went to the apparently world renown Heard Museum which displays Native American culture, art and history. (They didn’t appreciate it as much as I did, but there isn’t much to do in Phoenix anyway.) One of the exhibits presented the story of the Indian Schools which had been first set up in the late nineteenth century as a means to forcibly assimilate the Indians into normative American life.

These children were pulled from their homes and were forbidden to practice their traditional culture, wear their traditional clothing and had to cut their hair. They were forced to give up their Indian names and were given English ones. They could not speak their native languages, even privately, for fear of punishment. They were forced to attend Church services and were expected to convert to Christianity as their native religious practices were prohibited.

Seeing that, I said to my friends, that’s not much different from Antiochus, now is it? One of them mocked the grievance that they had to cut their hair. So I responded that while I didn’t know the specific meaningfulness of their hair (though I found out later that it does hold cultural or spiritual importance to many tribes) try to put it in perspective - what if you were mocking the idea of forcibly cutting off payes?

Some conversation ensued and soon one of them spontaneously remarked that a huge flaw in the typical yeshivah education is the lack of historical perspective that is given to Jewish history. He said that no attempt is made to try and understand the motives or goals of the people involved. Antiochus was simply evil and all of history is black and white. Indeed. I replied saying that he should read through Tanach and see how Shmuel and Melachim are chock full of unapologetic political intrigue.

Jewish history is real history in the normal world of men and you don’t need mystical or supernatural inducement to explain the diachronic plight of the Jewish people as an unpopular minority. If one understands our past as a singularity, bound by different, special rules and incomparable to anything else, then one cannot engage with it to learn from the lessons of the past. To learn from our history requires us to understand that it is history and has reflections in the histories of other peoples.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Orthodoxy is Unconsciousness

As has been pointed out, I have not posted in some time and so I thought I'd just throw a potboiler post out there and maybe it'd pull me into the blogging mood again.

Fun quote I found:

"Orthodoxy means not thinking -- not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness."

Anyone know it? It's from a pretty well known book.

Naturally though, I don't mean to malign all of orthodoxy or Orthodox Judaism in particular, but it is perfectly true that people who don't think tend to easily fall into prescribed ways of thinking. They let others do the thinking for them. This is just as true for religion and politics and for whatever else that people think about. Now, obviously, not everyone can be a leader, but it frankly saddens me and worries me for humanity's future that so many are so willing to mentally unhook themselves and live their lives by their respective received wisdom without hardly an independent critical thought.

So, yeah, think about that.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Aztec's National Revelation II

So it turns out that the records are pretty spotty since the Aztecs kept no written text of their myths and they simultaneously held several oral forms of the same stories (kinda similar to how early Israelites likely were). But there is one solid written source by the grandson of Montezuma II (made famous as the Aztec ruler during the Spanish conquest) from 1609.

While the text seems to make no big deal of Huitzilopochtli talking to his people he does do so, though more often he speaks through intermediaries the 'idol bearers.'

"Here it is told, it is recounted
How the ancients who were called, who were named,
Teochichimeca, Azteca, Mexitin, Chicomoztoca, came, arrived,
When they came to seek,
When they came to gain possession of their land here,
In the great city of Mexico Tenochtitlan. . . .
In the middle of the water where the cactus stands,
Where the eagle raises itself up,
Where the eagle screeches,
Where the eagle spreads his wings,
Where the eagle feeds,
Where the serpent is torn apart,
Where the fish fly,
Where the blue waters and the yellow waters join,
Where the water blazes up,
Where feathers came to be known,
Among the rushes, among the reeds where the battle is joined,
Where the peoples from the four directions are awaited,
There they arrived, there they settled…
They called themselves Teochichimeca, Azteca, Mexitin.
They brought along the image of their god,
The idol that they worshipped.
The Aztecs heard him speak and they answered him;
They did not see how it was he spoke to them…"

As you can note, it specifically says that the Aztecs heard him speak, though they did not see how - kinda like the the revelation in the Torah, hmm?

The last chapter goes like this:

"The Culhuacan pursued them, they pursued the Mexicans,
They drove them into the water….
The Culhuacans thought that they had perished in the water,
But they crossed the water on their shields,
They crossed on their arrows and shields.
They bound together the arrows, called Tlacochtli,
And those called Tlatzontectli,
And, sitting upon them, they crossed the water….
And sitting upon the shields they crossed the water
When the Culhuacans pursued them.
And they came into the rushes, into the reeds at
There they dried their battle gear which had become wet,
Their insignias, their shields—all their gear.
And their women and children began to weep.
They said, "Where shall we go? Let us remain here in the reeds…."
And then the old Mexicans, Quauhtlequtzqui, or Quauhcoatl,
And also the one called Axolohua went off,
They went into the rushes, into the reeds
At the place that is now called Toltzalan, Acatzalan;
The two of them went to look for the place they were to settle.
And when they came upon it,
They saw the many wondrous things there in the reeds.
This was the reason Huitzilopochtli had given his orders to the idol-
bearers, his fathers,
Quauhtlequetzqui, or Quauhcoatl, and Axolohua, the priest.
For he had sent them off,
He had told them all that there was in the rushes, in the reeds,
And that there he, Huitzilopochtli, was to stand,
That there he was to keep guard.
He told them with his own lips,
Thus he sent off the Mexicans.
And then they saw the white bald cypresses, the white willows,
And the white reeds and the white rushes;
And also the white frogs, the white fish, and the white snakes
That lived there in the water.
And they saw the springs that joined;
The first spring faced east and was called Tleatl and Atlatlayan,
The second spring faced north and was called Matlalatl and also
And when they saw this the old men wept.
They said, "Perhaps it is to be here.
We have seen what the priest, Huitzilopochtli, described to us
When he sent us off.
He said, `In the rushes, in the reeds, you shall see many things.'
And now we have seen them, we have beheld them!
It has come true, his words when he sent us off have come true!"
Then they said,
"O Mexicans, let us go, for we have beheld them.
Let us await the word of the priest;
He knows how it shall be done."
Then they came, they sojourned in Temazcaltitlan.
And during the night he saw him,
Huitzilopochtli appeared to the idol-bearer, called
Quauhtlequetzqui, or Quauhcoatl.
He said to him, "O Quauhcoatl, you have seen all there is in among
the reeds,
In among the rushes,
You have beheld it.
But hear this:
There is something you still have not seen.
Go, go and look at the cactus,
And on it, standing on it, you shall see an eagle.
It is eating, it is warming itself in the sun,
And your heart will rejoice,
For it is the heart of Copil that you cast away
Where you halted in Tlalcocomoco.
There it fell, where you looked, at the edge of the spring,
Among the rushes, among the reeds.
And from Copil's heart sprouted what is now called Tenochtli.
There we shall be, we shall keep guard,
We shall await, we shall meet the diverse peoples in battle.
With our bellies, with our heads,
With our arrows, with our shields,
We shall confront all who surround us
And we shall vanquish them all,
We shall make them captives,
And thus our city shall be established.
Mexico Tenochtitlan:
Where the Eagle Screeches
Where he spreads his wings,
Where the Eagle feeds,
Where the fish fly,
And where the Serpent is torn apart.
Mexico Tenochtitlan!
And many things shall come to pass."
Then Quauhcoatl said to him, "Very well, Oh priest. Your heart has
granted it.
Let all the old men, your fathers, hear."
Then Quauhcoatl gathered the Mexicans together,
He had them hear the words of Huitzilopochtli;
The Mexicans listened.
And then, once more, they went in among the rushes, in among the
To the edge of the spring.
And when they came out into the reeds,
There at the edge of the spring, was the Tenochtli,
And they saw and Eagle on the Tenochtli, perched on it, standing
on it.
It was eating something, it was feeding,
It was pecking at what it was eating.
And when the Eagle saw the Mexicans, he bowed his head low.
(They had only seen the Eagle from afar).
Its nest, its pallet, was of every kind of precious feather—
Of lovely cotinga feathers, roseate spoonbill feathers, quetzal
And they also saw strewn about the heads of sundry birds,
The head of precious birds strung together,
And some bird's feet and bones.
And the god called out to them, he said to them,
"O Mexicans, it shall be here!"
(But the Mexicans did not see who spoke).
It is for this reason they call it Tenochtitlan.
And then the Mexicans wept, they said,
"O happy, O blessed are we!
We have beheld the city that shall be ours!
Let us go, now, let us rest…."
This was in the year 2-House, 1325."

It is very interesting to note the similarities to the Torah here as well. The nation escapes an enemy army over a body of water and then the people just want to call it quits. Then the whole nation upon traveling further sees the amazing vision of a shiny albino land which was prophesied and their god says aloud "O Mexicans, it shall be here!" and the people are overjoyed.

So yes, the source I found before was a rather modern romanticized version of the classic Aztec migration myth, but the original still has enough to undermine the Orthodox apologetic claims that no other people has ever had a national revelation besides the Israelites.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Aztec's National Revelation

Lately I've been doing some broad and more or less random research through the internet looking for all sorts of claims of great public miracles to see if any of them well compare to the claims made in the Torah, but the truth is that they are few in far between and few even approximate the kind of story found in the Book of Exodus. Not that this means that the story in the Book of Exodus is 100% accurate history, but it begs for an explanation for why the very claim is made so uniquely.

See, the fact is that it's difficult to get a sizeable and self-contained group of people in one place to observe a single event. Times where that even happens in normal life are few and far between. You can get a large number of people, but that's not self-contained, i.e. of a single ethnic or national group so the cultural memory of whatever kind of event is not lost through dispersal.

Additionally, not only need there be an event, but it has to be a claimed event of significant cultural magnitude so that the self-contained group of people will supposedly retain it and pass it on to their children.

Now, the second condition is generally a function of religion while the first is a function of ethnic history and rather infrequently are the two things combined in anything but the most ancient-type peoples, of which the Hebrews count.

So the key is not to search for the origins of religions, especially the popular ones, which tend to be universalistic or otherwise widespread. You need to search for significant events that happen to a whole tribe and of which's stories were passed down within the tribe. There were likely many such stories in the past back when there were many more independent ancient tribes and few popular religions, but no doubt most of those are lost to us today.

The Jews have the unique benefit, in a sense, of retaining that original tribal/cultural memory while surviving into the modern world. Most tribes did not. And it is for that reason that such like-claims are so rare to see today.

So anyway, the key types of myths that I then went searching for from that point were tribal origins myths and migration myths where the whole tribe is ostensibly in the same place at the same time and experiencing the same things. One can easily see how the Exodus story fits into the category of a migration myth. And so I came across story of the Aztec migration.

The story is rather long and involved and so I recommend that anyone who's interested should do a google search and read up on your own, but the basic story is found here.

"One day, the legends say, a strange bird told the Aztecs to leave their country. It flew over the White Land crying 'ti-hui, t-hui,' which are the Aztec words for 'we must go'.

What can this mean? cried the puzzled people. They quickly gathered together. "The bird is calling us, said the priests. "He wants us to follow him."

The bird flew off towards the south. The tribes chose one of their number, Tecpaltzin, to lead them. "We shall go," declared Tecpaltzin. "A new homeland awaits us."

And so it was decided. The men set to and built boats, and soon the Aztec people were able to cross the water.

The legend also tells us that eight tribes of the Nahuas Indians came from the Ancestral Cave. These tribes had settled on the southern bank of the river Colorado, and were amazed to see the Aztecs arriving in their boats.

"Where are you going?" the princes of the Nahuas asked them.

"To find a new homeland," replied Tecpaltzin. The Nahuas were very excited.

"May we come with you?" they asked eagerly. The Aztecs agreed, and so they set out together.

The Aztec tribes decided to make a statue of their sun and war god Huitzilopochtli. Then the war god spoke to them through the statue:

"I shall lead you. I shall fly with you in the shape of a white eagle, with a serpent in my beak. Follow me wherever I go. Where I settle, build a temple to me, with a bed for me to rest on. Build your houses round the temple, and destroy the villages you find there. Worship the eagle and the tiger, and be a brave and warlike people. That is my command."

So spoke the god Huitzilopochtli. He had given the Aztecs a great task: to be noble, fight for the truth, and keep order in the world. His words were symbolic. But the Aztecs misunderstood, and they thought they were to enslave other people, occupy their countries, destroy their homes and behave like tyrants. And that is what they did.

The Aztecs praised their god, and swore to obey him. They set off on the great journey with the Nahua tribes. Three priests and a priestess bore the god's statue on their shoulders on a bed of reeds. On they went until they reached a suitable place to set up camp.

It was getting on towards evening. The Aztecs built a mound of earth and set their god on it. But before they could eat they heard cries coming from the tree. Alarmed they look up at the top of the tree, and at that moment, it split in two. They were terrified, for they knew this must be a sign from their god. They fell to their knees, weeping. Suddenly the god began to speak: "Wait, my Aztecs. you must part from the Nahua tribes. Call them here and tell them they must make their way alone." Tecpaltzin summonded the Nahua chief. "Our god has spoken" he announced.

"We are listening," replied the chiefs.

"He has ordered us to wait. The time has come to say goodbye."

The Nahuas were very sad. "But what about us?" they asked.

"You must go on without us," Tecpaltzin told them.

"Can't we stay with you?" asked the Nahuas asked sadly.

But Huitzilopochtli had forbidden it, for he did not wish his people to share the promised land with the Nahuas. So the Nahuas parted from the Aztecs and went on their way alone.


Then, for some years, they lived at Tollan, which people now call Tula. Up and down over Mexico, hither and thither they wandered. Not until the year 1216, after a migration that had lasted for nearly 60 years, did they come upon Anåhuac, the high plateau valley.

They stopped dumbstruck. Far below stretched the high plateau, dotted with lakes and bordered by mountains. It was, the ancient legends tell, a "Field of Dazzling Whiteness". Everything seemed to be brilliant white: the trees, the reeds, the meadows, the water - even the fish and the frogs. Were they really all so white, or was it simply that the new Mexicans were blinded by the beauty unfolding before their eyes?

The people fell to their knees and prayed. The chiefs and the priests wept with joy.

"At last we have come to our sacred land," they told the Mexicans. "It is Anåhuac, the Land by the Water. Our wishes have been granted. Rejoice, everyone. Rejoice, for our god has led us to the promised land." But could their wanderings really be over? Anxiously they awaited a sign from their god.

And suddenly the voice of Huitzilopochtli thundered forth.

"Stay, Mexicans! With all your strength and all your wisdom, make this country your own. Though you sweat blood and tears, you shall win what you have been seeking. Gold and silver, precious stones and splendid finery shall be your reward. You shall harvest cocoa, and cotton, and many fruits. Beautiful gardens will delight your eyes. This is your country!"

Wow, now doesn't that sound awfully similar to another story we've heard? The Aztecs considered themselves the 'chosen people' of Huitzilopochtli who lead them on their journey to a promised land. And apparently, through that time was a period of wandering the wilderness where their god spoke to them a good number of times. Especially impressive is that last time where it makes it clear that Huitzilopochtli was heard by the whole people.

In the part that skipped, Huitzilopochtli tells them to not longer go by the name Aztec, but by Mexica - and this is the founding story of Tenochtitlan, which became the capitol city of the Aztec Empire and is today located under modern Mexico City.

*To note though, this is only a very recent field of study for me and I have not confirmed this story's accuracy. There is a real paucity of data on the internet about it. I guess there aren't enough Aztecs around. So I ordered a book that is supposed to have good data on this subject and then I'll be able to confirm, or qualify as needed.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Buddha's Many Miracles

Each year there are four special days: They are the day of miracles, the day the Buddha was enlightened, the day the Buddha first taught the four noble truths, and the day he descended from the god realm of Tushita to Jambudvipa. There are six realms and in the human realm there are four great continents and eight subcontinents. The continent we live on is Jambudvipa.

According to the lunar calendar the first month is the miracle month. When Shakyamuni was forty, six great Hindu teachers, who represented the six schools of Hinduism that existed at the time, challenged Shakyamuni to a competition of miracles. At that time great kings and noble families sponsored teachers who could perform miracles. So Buddha accepted the challenge. He accepted because many would be benefited and achieve the arhat state and people of the future would be inspired to practice as a result of his demonstration. The first day to the fifteenth of the first month are precious and the fifteenth is especially great. The competition happened in the Bihar in India at Sravasti. 80,000 Buddhists and 84,000 Hindus attended the competition.

On the first day Buddha held his toothpick, put it on the ground and it turned to the wish fulfilling tree. It was decorated with jewels, like a Christmas tree. On the second day Buddha manifested two wish fulfilling jewels. The third day the king offered to wash Buddha's feet. When Buddha washed his feet, he threw the water and it became a pool with the eight special qualities of water. Whoever drank or touched it were healed. Today there is a well there where small amounts of water are offered for sale. It is useful for treating disease. On the fourth day it rained and the rain filled the eight canals. The fifth day Buddha emitted golden light from his mouth and people could see beings of the six realms being liberated. On the sixth day Buddha transformed some energy and everyone became clairvoyant and knew each others minds. On the seventh day Buddha manifested as the wheel turning king and many people converted to Buddhism. Up to that time the Hindu teachers had not shown miracles. On the eighth day the gods from Indra's palace sponsored the meals. They served Buddha and made offerings to him. Buddha's hand pressed the side of his seat and a thundering sound was emitted. Five frightening giant cannibals came out of the ground and they went for the seats of the Hindu teachers. Vajrapani also threatened the Hindu teachers. The Hindu teachers ran away. Vajrapani manifested a great storm. It became a tornado which picked up the Hindu teachers and their retinues and tossed them in the water. 60,000 Hindus converted that day and many monks attained the arhat's state and understanding. The gods showered flowers.

Some believe the eighth of the first month is the Buddha's birthday. Others believe the fifteenth of the fourth month is Buddha's birthday. Why do some believe the eighth. When Buddha dwelt at Sravasti, where he was for twenty four years, they were not allowed to build on the land were the monks camped The monks were required to live under a tree or in a small hut or tent. The land in Sravasti had three land owners. The land owner asked when is your birthday. Buddha replied in the first lunar month. Some marked his birthday then, according to the Vedic calendars.

The first to eighth day are the competition days. From the eighth to the fifteenth, Buddha showed miracles without competition. On the eighth day Buddha grew his body until the Brahma realm was under his chin. On the tenth day Buddha's body grew to the top of Akanishta. On the eleventh day, the Buddha he was not visible but the sound of his voice was heard everywhere. On the twelfth day light from his body radiated to all of samsara and developed loving kindness in all. On the thirteenth day Buddha manifested light from the spot between his eyebrows, filling all space with Buddhas, all who taught the dharma. On the fourteenth day the flowers that were offered by the gods filled all of space and on each flower a Buddha manifested and taught. On the fifteenth day Buddha gave the energy so that all beings could see all the six realms. Many people converted to Buddhism after seeing the lower realms with their own eyes. There are eight great stupas. One is called the miracle stupa and was built to commemorate this event. So that is the first great day., the day of miracles, from the first to the fifteenth of the first month. Tibetans celebrate the new year at this time.

"When the time came for the contest, the Buddha cast a mango seed on the ground; instantly the seed took root, and a great mango tree arose to shade the hall. After defeating the six philosophers and converting them to his teaching, the Enlightened One performed the Great Miracle of the Pairs.

"Standing in the air at the height of a palm tree, flames englufed the lower part of his body, and five hundred jets of water streamed from the upper part. Then flames leapt from the upper part of his body, and five hundreds jets of water streamed from the lower part. Then by his magic power, the Blessed one transformed himself into a bull with a quivering hump. Appearing in the east, the bull vanished and reappeared in the west. Vanishing in the west, it reappeared in the north. Vanishing in the north, it reappeared in the south. ... Several thousand kotis* of beings, seeing this great miracle, became glad, joyful, and pleased."

-Mahavastu (Buddhist scripture)

*A koti is equal to 10 million.

Now that's a pretty public series of miracles, eh?

P.S. Pass on this little nugget to the next person who tries to convince you that Buddhism is not a religion.

The Milk Miracle

Presented below [from here] is the story that shocked the world on September 21, 1995 - the day when the Murtis of Ganesh Ji around the world started to accept milk that was offered.

The Supernatural Event of This Century Is Experienced Simultaneously Worldwide

It all began on September 21st 1995 when an otherwise ordinary man in New Delhi dreamed that Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed God of Wisdom, craved a little milk. Upon awakening, he rushed in the dark before dawn to the nearest temple, where a skeptical priest allowed him to offer a spoonful of milk to the small stone image. Both watched in astonishment as it disappeared, magically consumed by the God. What followed is unprecedented in modern Hindu history. Within hours news had spread like a brush fire across India that Ganesha was accepting milk offerings. Tens of millions of people of all ages flocked to the nation's temples. The unworldly happening brought worldly New Delhi to a standstill, and its vast stocks of milk-more than a million liters-sold out within hours. Just as suddenly as it started in India, it stopped in just 24 hours.

But it was just beginning elsewhere as Hindus in India called their relatives in other parts of the world. Soon our Hinduism Today offices were flooded with reports from around the world. Everywhere the story was the same. A teaspoonful of milk offered by touching it to Ganesha's trunk, tusk or mouth would disappear in a few seconds to a few minutes, not always, but with unprecedented frequency. Reuters news service quoted Anila Premji, "I held the spoon out level, and it just disappeared. To me it was just a miracle. It gave me a sense of feeling that there is a God, a sense of Spirit on this Earth." Not only Ganesha, but Siva, Parvati, Nandi and the Naga, Siva's snake, took milk.

Here it is on wiki:

The Hindu milk miracle was a phenomenon reported to have occurred on September 21, 1995. Before dawn, a Hindu worshipper at a temple in south New Delhi made an offering of milk to a statue of Lord Ganesha. When a spoonful of milk from the bowl was held up to the trunk of the statue, the liquid was seen to disappear, apparently taken in by the idol. Word of the event spread quickly, and by mid-morning it was found that statues of the entire Hindu pantheon in temples all over North India were taking in milk, with the family of Shiva (Parvati, Ganesha, and Kartikeya) apparently the "thirstiest". By noon the news had spread beyond India, and Hindu temples in Britain, Canada, Dubai, and Nepal among other countries had successfully replicated the phenomenon, and the World Hindu Council (an Indian Hindu organisation) had announced that a miracle was occurring.

The apparent miracle had a significant effect on the areas around major temples; vehicle and pedestrian traffic in New Delhi was dense enough to create a gridlock lasting until late in the evening. Many stores in areas with significant Hindu communities saw a massive jump in sales of milk, with one Gateway store in England selling over 25,000 pints of milk,and overall milk sales in New Delhi jumped over 30%. Many minor temples struggled to deal with the vast increase in numbers, and queues spilled out into the streets.

And here's a video.

So, can millions of eye witnesses in India and all over the world be wrong? Or are you going to convert to Hinduism now?

Curiously, though, Deut. 4:28 has this to say, "There you will worship man-made gods of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell."

Nothing about drinking there.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Null Hypothesis

One thing that I hear pretty frequently from atheist circles is that given the question of God, since there is no evidence supporting that hypothesis (something I'd contest, anyway) they simply select the null hypothesis saying that there is no God. On the face of it that kind of formulation seems pretty reasonable. - it even has the nice scientific jargon to make it look like it holds authority, but what really is the question and the real null hypothesis?

The real question is not "Does God exist?" - but "How can we explain existence?" and "What is the nature of existence?" If these were taken to be scientific questions then scientific hypotheses in the form of the numerous theological theories out there could be used to answer them. And the null hypothesis? The null hypothesis is that existence and its nature are due to nothing but chance. The null hypothesis is not the rejection of another hypothesis, but the statistical assertion that chance alone is responsible for the results. Even the claiming of ignorance does not a null hypothesis make. It is the assertion of chance.

Now, maybe some people find the chance assertion to be reasonable, but I don't. There are way too many awesome things happening in our universe to chock it all up to luck. Even in the absence of stringent scientific results, I am lead to believe that the null hypothesis is missing something big.

Furthermore, of course, the atheist must still explain how chance itself can operate in non-existence which 'preceded' our universe. Usually they will posit some sort of Superuniverse which has the power to produce a great number of universes and we just lucked out that one was made which could support life.

But one must note how this Superuniverse Hypothesis is no longer a null hypothesis at all - it is a very specific idea about the higher order of existence. And, of course, it must be noted that this hypothesis has no scientific evidence to support it. So why should they accept this hypothesis with its same dearth of evidence (I would say a worse dearth) over any God Hypothesis which they so strongly object to? They only prefer the Superuniverse because it leaves out God, not because of any inner strength to the idea.

It's hardly a scientific issue - it's just philosophical bias.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Heil Chavez!

Chavez pulls a Stalin:

Chavez closes opposition TV station; thousands protest


President Hugo Chavez announced in January that the government would not renew the broadcast license for the station, long an outlet for opposition parties.

Chavez has accused the station of supporting the failed 2002 coup against him and violating broadcast laws.

He called the station's soap operas "pure poison" that promote capitalism, according to AP.

RCTV, which has been broadcasting for 53 years, is slated to be off the air at midnight. It will be replaced by a state-run station.

"To refuse to grant a new license for the most popular and oldest television channel in the country because the government disagrees with the editorial or political views of this channel, which are obviously critical to Chavez, is a case of censorship," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

"We have arrived at totalitarianism," said Marcel Granier, president of Empresas 1BC, which owns RCTV."

You might think the world would learn. If I were in Venezuela right now I would be doing my best to catch the next flight away from that 'worker's paradise.'

Friday, May 25, 2007

Quasi-Religious Souls

Found this here, from Arama's link on GH's blog. From today's NY Times:

The Catholic Boom, by David Brooks:

"The pope and many others speak for the thoroughly religious. Christopher Hitchens has the latest best seller on behalf of the antireligious. But who speaks for the quasi-religious?

Quasi-religious people attend services, but they’re bored much of the time. They read the Bible, but find large parts of it odd and irrelevant. They find themselves inextricably bound to their faith, but think some of the people who define it are nuts.

Whatever the state of their ambivalent souls, quasi-religious people often drive history. Abraham Lincoln knew scripture line by line but never quite shared the faith that mesmerized him. Quasi-religious Protestants, drifting anxiously from the certainties of their old religion, built Victorian England. Quasi-religious Jews, climbing up from ancestral orthodoxy, helped shape 20th-century American culture."


"In fact, if you really wanted to supercharge the nation, you’d fill it with college students who constantly attend church, but who are skeptical of everything they hear there. For there are at least two things we know about flourishing in a modern society.

First, college students who attend religious services regularly do better than those that don’t. As Margarita Mooney, a Princeton sociologist, has demonstrated in her research, they work harder and are more engaged with campus life. Second, students who come from denominations that encourage dissent are more successful, on average, than students from denominations that don’t.

This embodies the social gospel annex to the quasi-religious creed: Always try to be the least believing member of one of the more observant sects. Participate in organized religion, but be a friendly dissident inside. Ensconce yourself in traditional moral practice, but champion piecemeal modernization. Submit to the wisdom of the ages, but with one eye open.

The problem is nobody is ever going to write a book sketching out the full quasi-religious recipe for life. The message “God is Great” appeals to billions. Hitchens rides the best-seller list with “God is Not Great.” Nobody wants to read a book called “God is Right Most of the Time.”

Getting the best of both worlds, hmm...

Monday, May 21, 2007

Going After Rabbi Gottlieb

I was challenged to go after Rabbi Gottlieb's defense of the Kuzari argument, so I did. Read on...

This is Rabbi Gottlieb's version of the Kuzari argument. He gives two reasons why the gradual myth formation is not convincing. The first one is that the critics don't give any specific means by which the myth evolved and therefore there is no way to judge the plausibility.

But this is a poor argument. There are details in the traditional view that are literally miraculous and hence impossible to explain. Even an implausible myth generation is still more plausible than the impossible since it requires no magic to accomplish.

But even with that said, I think I can produce a very reasonable means by which the myth came to be. Moses was a real person who made a real speech in front of a real group of Israelites on a real mountain after he had helped them escape from slavery in Egypt. This is an entirely plausible event. I would say that he even ordered some laws from the mountain. I would even say that Moses spent some time alone on the mountain while he composed some text that he believed was spoken to him from God.

Is it so difficult to imagine this event becoming aggrandized over time? All the key players are already there. What's a few miracles and fireworks to work into the story over the course of centuries?

Rabbi Gottlieb provides his strawman scenario where all the ancient Israelites experienced was an earthquake, but there's no reason at all to be so minimalistic.

Rabbi Gottlieb's second reason is that there are no other examples of 'fictitious national unforgettables' meaning an event that would have been of vital importance to a nation but would not be true.

But this too is a strawman because 'myth' does not mean that the event is made up from nothing. As above, the Sinai story isn't strictly fiction, but a melding of truth and embellishment. And there are numerous examples of myths like that happening.

One excellent one is the great Kurukshetra War of ancient India. It was a great war, as recorded in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, that lasted only 18 days and brought the entire sub-continent to war. It involved almost every kingdom, save one, and had the combined total of almost four million soldiers counting both sides. An event of this magnitude would be impossible for the Indians to forget, but is it strictly true?

In the course of the war, fighters use numerous magical weapons, talk to various gods, and in the end there are only seven survivors. (But do note that I'm not depending on the battle survivors to validate the story, but for the rest of the Indian population which had to have known of this war and lived through the effects of depopulation.)

So was there an a Kurukshetra War? Probably. As Rabbi Gottlieb says, it's very difficult to make something like a national epic up and have people believe it. But are the details all correct? Did four million people really go to war? Were there really only seven survivors? Did they really use magic and talk to gods? I think those are just embellishments on a true story.

Joshua's Mark on the Torah

I just realized found this little doozy today. Has anyone read the Book of Joshua? Check out the last chapter, chapter 24. The conquest is apparently all wrapped up and Joshua is speaking to the people to renew the covenant that they made at Sinai. But look what's written as he's finishing up:

כב וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אֶל-הָעָם, עֵדִים אַתֶּם בָּכֶם, כִּי-אַתֶּם בְּחַרְתֶּם לָכֶם אֶת-יְהוָה, לַעֲבֹד אוֹתוֹ; וַיֹּאמְרוּ, עֵדִים. כג וְעַתָּה, הָסִירוּ אֶת-אֱלֹהֵי הַנֵּכָר אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבְּכֶם; וְהַטּוּ, אֶת-לְבַבְכֶם, אֶל-יְהוָה, אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. כד וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָעָם, אֶל-יְהוֹשֻׁעַ: אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ נַעֲבֹד, וּבְקוֹלוֹ נִשְׁמָע. כה וַיִּכְרֹת יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בְּרִית לָעָם, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא; וַיָּשֶׂם לוֹ חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט, בִּשְׁכֶם. כו וַיִּכְתֹּב יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אֶת-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, בְּסֵפֶר תּוֹרַת אֱלֹהִים; וַיִּקַּח, אֶבֶן גְּדוֹלָה, וַיְקִימֶהָ שָּׁם, תַּחַת הָאַלָּה אֲשֶׁר בְּמִקְדַּשׁ יְהוָה.
כז וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אֶל-כָּל-הָעָם, הִנֵּה הָאֶבֶן הַזֹּאת תִּהְיֶה-בָּנוּ לְעֵדָה--כִּי-הִיא שָׁמְעָה אֵת כָּל-אִמְרֵי יְהוָה, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר עִמָּנוּ; וְהָיְתָה בָכֶם לְעֵדָה, פֶּן-תְּכַחֲשׁוּן בֵּאלֹהֵיכֶם. כח וַיְשַׁלַּח יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אֶת-הָעָם, אִישׁ לְנַחֲלָתוֹ.

"22 Then Joshua said, "You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the LORD." "Yes, we are witnesses," they replied.
23 "Now then," said Joshua, "throw away the foreign gods that are among you and yield your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel."
24 And the people said to Joshua, "We will serve the LORD our God and obey him."
25 On that day Joshua made a covenant for the people, and there at Shechem he drew up for them decrees and laws.

26 And Joshua recorded these things in the Book of the Law of God. Then he took a large stone and set it up there under the oak near the holy place of the LORD.
27 "See!" he said to all the people. "This stone will be a witness against us. It has heard all the words the LORD has said to us. It will be a witness against you if you are untrue to your God.

28 Then Joshua sent the people away, each to his own inheritance. "

The first question is naturally why they would still have any foreign gods left with them to throw away, but that can be easily answered in a few ways. The really remarkable issue is what takes place in p'sukim 25-26 where Joshua is apparently making up a covenant and laws and recording them in the God's "Sefer Torah." It's mentioned so nonchalantly in the text, but it stands in direct conflict with the popular Orthodox belief that the entire Torah was fixed and written by Moshe.

Targum Yonatan makes no changes to the words and Rashi relates one view that this is referring merely to the last eight verses of the Torah, but there is no reason to presume that. It doesn't even make any sense in context. He also relates another view that Joshua chose this time to copy the chapter on refuge cities from the Torah to his own book. But that doesn't make any sense in context either.

Egyptians and the Unclean Pig

"The pig is regarded among them as an unclean animal, so much so that if a man in passing accidentally touch a pig, he instantly hurries to the river, and plunges in with all his clothes on. Hence, too, the swineherds, notwithstanding that they are of pure Egyptian blood, are forbidden to enter into any of the temples, which are open to all other Egyptians; and further, no one will give his daughter in marriage to a swineherd, or take a wife from among them, so that the swineherds are forced to intermarry among themselves. They do not offer swine in sacrifice to any of their gods, excepting Bacchus and the Moon, whom they honour in this way at the same time, sacrificing pigs to both of them at the same full moon, and afterwards eating of the flesh. There is a reason alleged by them for their detestation of swine at all other seasons, and their use of them at this festival, with which I am well acquainted, but which I do not think it proper to mention. The following is the mode in which they sacrifice the swine to the Moon:- As soon as the victim is slain, the tip of the tail, the spleen, and the caul are put together, and having been covered with all the fat that has been found in the animal's belly, are straightway burnt. The remainder of the flesh is eaten on the same day that the sacrifice is offered, which is the day of the full moon: at any other time they would not so much as taste it. The poorer sort, who cannot afford live pigs, form pigs of dough, which they bake and offer in sacrifice.

To Bacchus, on the eve of his feast, every Egyptian sacrifices a hog before the door of his house, which is then given back to the swineherd by whom it was furnished, and by him carried away. In other respects the festival is celebrated almost exactly as Bacchic festivals are in Greece, excepting that the Egyptians have no choral dances. They also use instead of phalli another invention, consisting of images a cubit high, pulled by strings, which the women carry round to the villages. A piper goes in front, and the women follow, singing hymns in honour of Bacchus. They give a religious reason for the peculiarities of the image. "

-Herodotus, Book 2

Egyptians considered the pig an unclean animal. Hmmm...

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Best of All Possible Theodicies

For a long time I have been rather contemptuous at attempts of theodicy. This is because most of the attempts make a mockery out of some deeply important matter or they somehow undermine exactly what they were trying to defend.

But there is one answer that I have found which seems to do a fairly good job at it without causing any serious metaphysical casualties. This would be Leibniz's "best of all possible worlds" solution. In it, God is constrained based on the inherent nature of the world He's creating to balance opposing values and in God's mathematics there is a required minimum of evil that must exist in order for the world to be possible. Indeed, perhaps at each moment, God is doing His divine calculus and selecting (perhaps through being the ultimate observer in Quantum Physics) the world with the least amount of evil in it.

The focus point where this argument seems to depend on is that God is not as omnipotent as previously thought. For if He's constricted by the nature of the universe then He cannot do 'anything.' But this is an old issue and is really as relevant as God not being able to create a rock that He cannot lift. It is a logical impossibility. So too, it is simply a logical impossibility to create a world desired by God without some evil in it.

As JA relates a counterargument, "But doesn’t that limit God’s knowledge and power? Doesn’t that say that God couldn’t think of a better way to accomplish his goals other than torturing innocent people?"

The answer is, as explained above, yes, it is a limit of sorts on God's power. And no, there is no better way.

It is rather easy for us in our limited perspectives to scoff at this and say how simple it might be to change this or that little detail and make the world a much better place - thus undermining the whole concept that the world is already the best. For example, mightn't the world be a much better place if God gave Hitler a heart attack in his youth? But the truth of the matter is that we have no idea if the world would, in fact, be any better. It could be much worse.

If you've ever seen any of those movies like the Butterfly Effect or famous Twilight Zone episodes (or even that one from the Simpsons) where people who think they're being clever travel back in time to fix something that went wrong in the past, they never appreciate the intricacies of the timeline and inevitably only manage to make things worse (Dr. Sam Becket, notwithstanding). The point is that it's easy to say that something could be made better with some little change here or there, but without the absolute perspective - which only God can have - such notions are due to mere ignorance.

A good article on the topic: here.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Atheists in Kollel?

"Our Rabbis taught: When R. Eleazar b. Perata and R. Hanina b. Teradion were arrested, R. Eleazar b. Perata said to R. Hanina b. Teradion: Happy art thou that thou hast been arrested on one charge; woe is me, for I am arrested on five charges. R. Hanina replied: Happy art thou, who hast been arrested on five charges, but wilt be rescued; woe is me who, though having been arrested on one charge, will not be rescued; for thou hast occupied thyself with [the study of] the Torah as well as with acts of benevolence, whereas I occupied myself with Torah alone.

This accords with the opinion of R. Huna. For R. Huna said: He who only occupies himself with the study of the Torah is as if he had no God, for it is said: Now for long seasons Israel was without the true God. What is meant by 'without the true God'? — It means that he who only occupies himself with the study of the Torah is as if he had no God."

-Talmud, Avodah Zara 17b

Interesting, no?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Mill and the Liberty from Orthodoxy

I've been reading John Stuart Mill, the great English philosopher, proponent of Utilitarianism, as of late and I found one of his essays titled "Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion" very interesting and appropriate in a surprising number of respects given that it refers to a social situation of 150 years in the past. The point of the article is to defend the very concept of free speech and discussion in all cases even for situations where a belief is unanimously believed to be true and there is no apparent utility in considering other views or potential weaknesses in the unanimously held view itself. It may be a relevant essay for those Jews of dogmatic persuasions to explain how even if heresy is actually false, there are still yet very good reasons to allow it to be discussed openly. (And if it is true then the reasons are all the more better.)

One time when I was discussing such topics with a friend of mine she had opined that if Orthodoxy is truly true then it would be foolish to start bringing up difficulties with the doctrines. There would be weak minds who would be bothered by such things and they could find themselves being pulled off the derech. Better to keep any such difficulties to oneself and let the gedolim (however they may be defined) deal with the issues in their advanced and surely competent way.

This would be Mill's response:

To abate the force of these considerations, an enemy of free discussion may be supposed to say, that there is no necessity for mankind in general to know and understand all that can be said against or for their opinions by philosophers and theologians. That it is not needful for common men to be able to expose all the misstatements or fallacies of an ingenious opponent. That it is enough if there is always somebody capable of answering them, so that nothing likely to mislead uninstructed persons remains unrefuted. That simple minds, having been taught the obvious grounds of the truths inculcated on them, may trust to authority for the rest, and being aware that they have neither knowledge nor talent to resolve every difficulty which can be raised, may repose in the assurance that all those which have been raised have been or can be answered, by those who are specially trained to the task.

Conceding to this view of the subject the utmost that can be claimed for it by those most easily satisfied with the amount of understanding of truth which ought to accompany the belief of it; even so, the argument for free discussion is no way weakened. For even this doctrine acknowledges that mankind ought to have a rational assurance that all objections have been satisfactorily answered; and how are they to be answered if that which requires to be answered is not spoken? or how can the answer be known to be satisfactory, if the objectors have no opportunity of showing that it is unsatisfactory? If not the public, at least the philosophers and theologians who are to resolve the difficulties, must make themselves familiar with those difficulties in their most puzzling form; and this cannot be accomplished unless they are freely stated, and placed in the most advantageous light which they admit of. The Catholic Church [and the Haredi world!] has its own way of dealing with this embarrassing problem. It makes a broad separation between those who can be permitted to receive its doctrines on conviction, and those who must accept them on trust. Neither, indeed, are allowed any choice as to what they will accept; but the clergy, such at least as can be fully confided in, may admissibly and meritoriously make themselves acquainted with the arguments of opponents, in order to answer them, and may, therefore, read heretical books; the laity, not unless by special permission, hard to be obtained. This discipline recognises a knowledge of the enemy's case as beneficial to the teachers, but finds means, consistent with this, of denying it to the rest of the world: thus giving to the élite more mental culture, though not more mental freedom, than it allows to the mass. By this device it succeeds in obtaining the kind of mental superiority which its purposes require; for though culture without freedom never made a large and liberal mind, it can make a clever nisi prius advocate of a cause.


On the costs to humankind through enforcing an Orthodoxy:

A convenient plan for having peace in the intellectual world, and keeping all things going on therein very much as they do already. But the price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification, is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind. A state of things in which a large portion of the most active and inquiring intellects find it advisable to keep the general principles and grounds of their convictions within their own breasts, and attempt, in what they address to the public, to fit as much as they can of their own conclusions to premises which they have internally renounced, cannot send forth the open, fearless characters, and logical, consistent intellects who once adorned the thinking world. The sort of men who can be looked for under it, are either mere conformers to commonplace, or time-servers for truth, whose arguments on all great subjects are meant for their hearers, and are not those which have convinced themselves. Those who avoid this alternative, do so by narrowing their thoughts and interest to things which can be spoken of without venturing within the region of principles, that is, to small practical matters, which would come right of themselves, if but the minds of mankind were strengthened and enlarged, and which will never be made effectually right until then: while that which would strengthen and enlarge men's minds, free and daring speculation on the highest subjects, is abandoned.

Those in whose eyes this reticence on the part of heretics is no evil, should consider in the first place, that in consequence of it there is never any fair and thorough discussion of heretical opinions; and that such of them as could not stand such a discussion, though they may be prevented from spreading, do not disappear. But it is not the minds of heretics that are deteriorated most, by the ban placed on all inquiry which does not end in the orthodox conclusions. The greatest harm done is to those who are not heretics, and whose whole mental development is cramped, and their reason cowed, by the fear of heresy. Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral? Among them we may occasionally see some man of deep conscientiousness, and subtle and refined understanding, who spends a life in sophisticating with an intellect which he cannot silence, and exhausts the resources of ingenuity in attempting to reconcile the promptings of his conscience and reason with orthodoxy, which yet he does not, perhaps, to the end succeed in doing. No one can be a great thinker who does not recognise, that as a thinker it is his first duty to follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead. Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think. Not that it is solely, or chiefly, to form great thinkers, that freedom of thinking is required. On the contrary, it is as much and even more indispensable, to enable average human beings to attain the mental stature which they are capable of. There have been, and may again be, great individual thinkers, in a general atmosphere of mental slavery. But there never has been, nor ever will be, in that atmosphere, an intellectually active people.


On the benefits of debating the issues:

As mankind improve, the number of doctrines which are no longer disputed or doubted will be constantly on the increase: and the well-being of mankind may almost be measured by the number and gravity of the truths which have reached the point of being uncontested. The cessation, on one question after another, of serious controversy, is one of the necessary incidents of the consolidation of opinion; a consolidation as salutary in the case of true opinions, as it is dangerous and noxious when the opinions are erroneous. But though this gradual narrowing of the bounds of diversity of opinion is necessary in both senses of the term, being at once inevitable and indispensable, we are not therefore obliged to conclude that all its consequences must be beneficial. The loss of so important an aid to the intelligent and living apprehension of a truth, as is afforded by the necessity of explaining it to, or defending it against, opponents, though not sufficient to outweigh, is no trifling drawback from, the benefit of its universal recognition. Where this advantage can no longer be had, I confess I should like to see the teachers of mankind endeavouring to provide a substitute for it; some contrivance for making the difficulties of the question as present to the learner's consciousness, as if they were pressed upon him by a dissentient champion, eager for his conversion.

But instead of seeking contrivances for this purpose, they have lost those they formerly had. The Socratic dialectics, so magnificently exemplified in the dialogues of Plato, were a contrivance of this description. They were essentially a negative discussion of the great questions of philosophy and life, directed with consummate skill to the purpose of convincing any one who had merely adopted the commonplaces of received opinion, that he did not understand the subject—that he as yet attached no definite meaning to the doctrines he professed; in order that, becoming aware of his ignorance, he might be put in the way to attain a stable belief, resting on a clear apprehension both of the meaning of doctrines and of their evidence. The school disputations of the middle ages had a somewhat similar object. They were intended to make sure that the pupil understood his own opinion, and (by necessary correlation) the opinion opposed to it, and could enforce the grounds of the one and confute those of the other. These last-mentioned contests had indeed the incurable defect, that the premises appealed to were taken from authority, not from reason; and, as a discipline to the mind, they were in every respect inferior to the powerful dialectics which formed the intellects of the "Socratici viri:" but the modern mind owes far more to both than it is generally willing to admit, and the present modes of education contain nothing which in the smallest degree supplies the place either of the one or of the other. A person who derives all his instruction from teachers or books, even if he escape the besetting temptation of contenting himself with cram, is under no compulsion to hear both sides; accordingly it is far from a frequent accomplishment, even among thinkers, to know both sides; and the weakest part of what everybody says in defence of his opinion, is what he intends as a reply to antagonists. It is the fashion of the present time to disparage negative logic—that which points out weaknesses in theory or errors in practice, without establishing positive truths. Such negative criticism would indeed be poor enough as an ultimate result; but as a means to attaining any positive knowledge or conviction worthy the name, it cannot be valued too highly; and until people are again systematically trained to it, there will be few great thinkers, and a low general average of intellect, in any but the mathematical and physical departments of speculation. On any other subject no one's opinions deserve the name of knowledge, except so far as he has either had forced upon him by others, or gone through of himself, the same mental process which would have been required of him in carrying on an active controversy with opponents. That, therefore, which when absent, it is so indispensable, but so difficult, to create, how worse than absurd is it to forego, when spontaneously offering itself! If there are any persons who contest a received opinion, or who will do so if law or opinion will let them, let us thank them for it, open our minds to listen to them, and rejoice that there is some one to do for us what we otherwise ought, if we have any regard for either the certainty or the vitality of our convictions, to do with much greater labor for ourselves.



We have now recognised the necessity to the mental well-being of mankind (on which all their other well-being depends) of freedom of opinion, and freedom of the expression of opinion, on four distinct grounds; which we will now briefly recapitulate.

First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.

Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.

Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.

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