Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Carter and Hamas, BFF

Hmm, should Israel follow Carter's lead?

אִישׁ חָמָס יְפַתֶּה רֵעֵהוּ וְהוֹלִיכוֹ בְּדֶרֶךְ לֹא-טוֹב

"A man of Hamas entices his neighbor and leads him on a way that is not good."
- Proverbs 16:29

I always found it an ironic coincidence that Hamas would choose a name for themselves that was so apropo.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

For your consideration:

There is a thing, formless yet complete.
Before heaven and earth it existed.
Without sound, without substance, it stands alone and unchanging.
It is all-pervading and unfailing.
One may think of it as the mother of all beneath Heaven.
We do not know its name, but we call it Tao.

Deep and still, it seems to have existed forever.

-Lao Tzu

See more on philosophical Taoism and on pan(en)theism generally.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Moral Methods

So I've just been having this extended debate (as typical on GH's site) with several other people on the nature of morality and how we ought to go about ascertaining correct action. So the typical theist's assertion is that only God has the authority to determine what is moral and what is not - human-based reason is subjective and without authority.

Now the fact is that I believe in an objective morality because otherwise there's no point in discussing morality. If it's all subjective then everyone does what they wants and nobody has any authority to tell others what to do. So if you're going to meaningfully discuss morality then you need to presume that there is an objective morality to which we ought to conform our behavior. Whether this objective morality involves God in some way is really not the issue here. I'm inclined to say 'yes' - assuming God is involved in all things, but I'm not prepared to say that God wrote a list and told it to any particular group of humans. I believe we can make a kind of science of ethics and determine correct action as best we can through applying the tools of reason and logic, as well as relying to a certain degree on intuition, historical study, and whatever else may be relevant. This science is objective and ought to be compelling in argument - so it has some authority.

Now the difference between the orthodox religious person and I is that they believe in a whole theology through which they claim to know God's moral will. Revelation. They don't claim to use reason or logic - they have divine revelation telling them what's right and what's wrong. Wow. I mean that semi-seriously too because it would be really convenient to have a perfect being telling me what's what. A lot of that pesky moral uncertainty would vanish and it has a boatload of authority. But an issue arises - the same one as always - how do they know this revelation is true?

If they say that they rely on faith - then seriously WTF? The Halachic system proposes things like killing people for lighting matches on the Sabbath - how can you dare to condemn a man to death (even theoretically) for something which you have zero rational reason to suggest is true? Those who rely on faith are ontologically unsophisticated and and ethically negligent. How can they be any different from any other religious nut who claims - based on faith - to have God's backing for any kind of evil you could imagine?!

But suppose the religious person believes they have reasonable arguments for their belief system. Ok, so maybe they aren't as negligent. They may be entirely wrong and thereby supporting bad ethics, but at least they're trying to dutifully ascertain righteousness. But you see the issue already don't you? If they are relying on _reason_ to help them out ontologically how is that intrisically different from my system of ethics which relies on _reason_ to determine morality? They both rely on human reason, which is subjective and without authority as far as the theist is concerned.


So I asked one of the theists on GH's blog, would you be willing (assuming he lived in a time and place where it were possible) to execute a man for lighting a match on the Sabbath? And he, after extensive digressions and diversions, finally admitted that he would! He claimed to have reasonable circumstantial evidence for believing in Orthodoxy and was then prepared to accept the Halachic system as-is. But, wait a second - he's relying on circumstantial evidence to promote a system where he executes a man for ritual offenses? He'd kill based solely on circumstantial evidence! Wow! As per Halacha, a Jewish court certainly needs more than that in order to convict and execute.

My point here is that in order to support a revelation-based moral system that can execute for ritual offenses you need to be as certain as a capital-offense jury verdict that the whole system is valid before you can possibly be willing to execute a man based on it. We're talking 99++% certainty here. Could you convince a jury of your peers of your religious beliefs? If you aren't that certain then you are deep in moral turpitude to be willing (even theoretically) to execute people based on it.

Who among the Jbloggers are so certain? RJM? Bueller?

Now I willingly admit that my methodology of asertaining correct action is limited. Human reason is not perfect and so I believe we ought to take a conservative approach to ethics and not get too bowled over by the rhetoric of guys like Peter Singer who suggest that infanticide is justifiable. Yet at the same time, it must be noted that it is the best tool we've got. This is in wild contradistinction to the likes of religious ethics which are as reasonably based as the Hamas manifesto. An Orthodox Jew cannot convince the Hamas guy that his actions are irrational or wrong because it's just a matter of dogma vs dogma. They both believe in their moral system based on a claimed revelation. They are on precisely equal playing fields and the debate becomes a tawdry argument over theology. But if we could inject a little reason into the discussion and make people justify their actions on reasonable grounds then maybe some progress could be made.

Friday, April 11, 2008


I think, more than anything about Judaism that fascinates me to no end is the question of origins. Naturally this includes the big questions about the universe, the Jewish people, the Torah and so on - but also the relatively smaller questions. Why was pork forbidden as an unclean animal? What is tzitzit? Why circumcision? Why Shabbos? Who wrote this or that prayer and what does it mean? Why do we fast on Ta'anit Esther? Why don't we cut our hair during Sfira?

What is often most fascinating about all this is the very different answers you may get from traditional sources as compared to academic scholarship, assuming the origins aren't lost in the sands of time. As I brought the question up recently on XGH's blog - why is Chanukah eight days long? The Talmud says because the oil miraculously lasted that long. What says historical sources like 2 Maccabees? Because they were celebrating Succos in Kislev. Back in Tishrei when they were at war, the Temple was impure and they couldn't do it properly so they translated the eight days of Succos + Shmini Atzeret into Kislev and established a holiday. Understanding the true origins of a practice usually makes it that much more meaningful.

Anyway, I was wondering recently about the origins of the feather, wooden spoon, and candle deal that is traditionally used for bedikat chametz. I figure it's probably kabbalistic, but I haven't been able to track it down. What are the objects supposed to signify? A gold star to whomever can give me the answer.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Choosing Observance

Found an interesting blog run by a Conservative convert who seeks a community with an observance level beyond what is commonly performed by the relatively lax Conservative world. Amazing how the two of us came from very different perspectives but seem to hold a few key considerations in common:

"However, what I’ve come to realize is that I am becoming something of an “out of the shul Jew”. What I mean by that is that my sense of Judaism isn’t just grounded in official synagogue study and activities. Rather I increasingly experience my Judaism outside of the shul. For example first thing in the morning when I get up and wash my hands, recite morning blessings, put on one of my Tallit Katan and force (yes sometimes those first few minutes are excruciatingly difficult) my way into the living room to daven Shacharit. I can feel my Jewishness bubbling up through my keeping kosher even when it’s difficult. I certainly feel it when Shabbos is made sacred and I’m not talking about going to shul because that’s the easy part. It’s in the preparing of a lovely table and putting on nice clothing before Shabbos starts, then sharing a Sabbath Seder with friends. I can feel my Jewishness in the struggle to stay out of the car, off the computer and television and in not spending money for 25 hours. I feel my Judaism deeply when walking down the street sporting a Kippah and someone gives me a smart ass remark. I feel like a Jew every time I manage to make even the smallest sacrifice, out of a sense of commitment to observance. Especially during those times when no one is watching and I could get away with cheating ,if I wanted to. I feel my Judaism every time I act from a place of loving kindness and I feel it when I miss the boat by falling into Loshon Hara but am able to catch myself even if it’s after-the-fact and do Teshuvah.

Am I being a little self-important and self obsessed, maybe so, but I’m not sure if that’s such a bad thing. I don’t want synagogue affiliation or even denominational affiliation to be my primary source of Jewish identity. I want it to be observance and more importantly, I want to be in an environment that supports that kind of lifestyle."