Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Land of the Infidel

No, I'm not talking about America but Kafiristan - yes, believe it or not, it's a real place. And ironically it's in Afghanistan.

Kafiristan or Kafirstan ("Land of the Infidel" in Persian) was a historic name of Nurestan (Nuristan), a province in the Hindukush region of Afghanistan. This historic region lies on, and mainly comprises, basins of the rivers Alingar, Pech (Kamah), Landai Sin, and Kunar, and the intervening mountain ranges. It is bounded by the main range of the Hindukush on the north, the Pakistani border on the east, the Kunar Valley in the south, and the Alishang River in the west.

Kafiristan takes its name from the inhabitants, the Kafirs, a fiercely independent people with distinctive culture, language and religion. In 1896 the country was conquered and forcibly converted to Islam by the Emir Abdur Rahman Khan, who renamed the people as Nuristani ("Enlightened Ones" in Persian) and the land as Nuristan ("Land of the Enlightened").

While the etymology is contested by some it was used and understood as 'The Land of the Infidel" by the neighboring Muslims.

I just think that jblogosphere tends to get a bit narrow-sighted when the only considered possibilities are Judaism (somewhere along the spectrum) or non-Judaism. From the Muslim perspective (one fifth of the planet, mind you) we're all kaffirs anyway. It seems to put things in some perspective.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm: Existentialist

Wow, I hadn't realized Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm was such an existentialist.

It's very interesting to me how his paper follows so many of the themes that I've been thinking through this past long while. That it is better to open one's mind to speculative truth even while the danger of falsehood may enter, for it may be worse to close one's mind to everything, thus locking truth out. And that faith-acts, like Halacha, demonstrate a key trust, a 'faith-in', even while substantive cognitive doubts may exist as merely theoretical problems.

Ironically, while all of these ideas help me to understand the most crucial of religious ideas - i.e. metaphysics and the object of faith in itself, they don't help at all when we bring simple historical propositions into the picture. Exodus, revelation, the validity of our mesorah. He glosses over these kinds of concepts at the beginning of his paper but these are not the abstract philosophical issues that can be dealt with by existentialist philosophies. For the Orthodox system they are true out of dogmatic necessity, but how can the skeptical intellectual (I flatter myself) take that as reason enough to believe?

I don't wonder how Rabbi Lamm dealt with those issues, but I wonder how Dr. Lamm does.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

All Faiths are Not Created Equal

To Ben Avuyah on the matter of the equivalence of all faith claims:

"Of course, people can claim they have faith in God's overwhelming morality, but that is the end of all reasoned argument, as all faith claims, dependant on the absence of evidence, are equall, and get dumped in the same hole with healing crystals and scientology."

It's easy to disregard faith. I've done it myself for quite some time, but I think eventually one must realize that if you don't want to sink into the bottomless pit of existential meaninglessness then you need to put your faith in something.

There comes a point where so much argument is just white noise.

Naturally, evidence-based thinking is superior in most respects, but when one reaches the limits of human knowledge I believe we ought to allow ourselves a measure of guiltless speculation.

I do not believe all faith claims are equal as some are coherent while others are not. Some are internally consistent while others are not. Some conflict with the known facts while others exist external to them.

I see little wrong with a coherent, internally consistent belief system that conflicts with no known facts. That's hardly science, of course, but that is religion. It has its place.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

On Fasting and the Place of Judaism

This is a response to Michelle's problem with regard to her understanding spiritual development to be the primary concern in life, specifically vis a vis her reported dislike for fasting because it interferes with regular life:

Purposefully depriving your body of nourishment and hydration is generally unpleasant. If you did like it then you would probably be suffering from some mental disorder.

Personally, I can fast for a day pretty easily, so most times I don't mind it that much - but it's not something I look forward to either.

In any case, the point of fasting is not just to 'do your duty' as is the common poor conception, but as a means to change your way of thinking. It is to understand why you fast and to grow in character and spirituality (whatever that means exactly).

Too much of modern Judaism consists of doing what you think you have to and being 'covered' rather than looking beneath the surface and understanding the messages that underline the actions and traditional rituals. See Isaiah 58:5-6*. If all you accomplished from fasting was being hungry then you accomplished nothing.

Yes, Judaism interrupts regular life - often by design - but that doesn't mean regular life is not important. Having a job, a family, enjoying life - these are all important supporting beams for life that exist complementary with personal development. A good Jew is not a monk - he is a person who lives in the real world while remaining mindful of the lessons of Jewish tradition. And an interruption now and then helps make that possible.

* "5 [Sarcastically] Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD? 6 Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?"

On Hashgacha Pratis

(As seen on XGH's blog as a recent comment:)

I tend to look at 'hashgacha pratis' in the sense that if Jews, as a community, adhere to the lessons in Jewish tradition then, as a community, life will be good and pleasant and so on. It's a simple case of causality.

The wiser ones who understand more of 'God's ways' will be all the more able to understand how best to accomplish their goals and their life will likewise be all the more better for it.

No guarantees though.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Dvar Megillat Esther

As of late I've been reflecting a bit on the fortunes of Jewish history and how the story of Purim is meant to be a commentary. My common understanding was that in Jewish history, as is well known, the Jews get the short end of the stick once or twice and that therefore Purim was meant as a statement saying that a) we Jews are survivors and no matter what our enemies try to throw at us, we'll still come through and b) that, as a sort of ironic joke, sometimes even when great calamity seems imminent and another round of kinot are going to find inspiration, things can still work out in our favor.

It then struck me, as I was reviewing Megillat Esther, that Mordechai makes an interesting statement as he's convincing Esther to use her prominent royal position to help the Jews. And he says, "Do not think that because you are in the king's house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father's family will perish."

What's fascinating about this is that Mordechai seems so sure that the Jews will be saved even though he himself was the product of an Exile which was one of the worst calamities in Jewish history. What makes him so certain that the Jews weren't in for another round?

Some may say the answer is because Cyrus had already proclaimed that the Jews could return to their land and rebuild the Temple and thus he'd figure that God's anger was assuaged enough that the Jews didn't deserve another whopping. Could be, could be.

But I prefer to see it more as a statement of hope and determination even in the face of apparent certain death and destruction. If you are working on the assumption that all plans are doomed for failure then you will never act - and you will fail. But if you are acting on the assumption that something can be done successfully and that you have a responsibility to act - then you will act and you may very well succeed.

The correct attitude when one approaches a problem then should be one of self-confidence and duty - that you ought to act and that your actions will lead to success.

Some hamentashen for thought.