Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Convenient Conversions

Interesting question on The Frum Skeptics Group recently:

"If living one way and believing another is "par for the course" on this list, then no one here has any objection to Russian/Rumanian/Ethiopians who convert for convenience (i.e. for admission & facilitation of absorption into Israeli society), no?

*That* would be having double-standards: being lenient upon oneself while nit-picking about others."

In my mind, being Jewish is far more an identity issue than a issue of even either belief or practice. So I think it is likely that many of the Jews here feel strongly about being Jewish and identify strongly as Jewish even without any religious connotations. Because of that idea then having non-Jews convert to Judaism and calling themselves Jews without that deep-seated true identity as Jews, it makes a sham of our history and our heritage.

So I'd follow the general conceptual strictness in Orthodox conversions where a person has to prove real interest and real conviction and real understanding of what he's getting into if he wants to join our collective path and identity as one of us. It isn't a factor of "meaness" or double standard, we just cannot allow a dilution of our identities by those who would add nothing to it.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Philosophical Evolution

I've been considering lately the ideas advanced by Jewish scholars like Maimonides and Isaac Albalag regarding the twofold truths of Judaism. They argue, in various ways, that there are distinct aspects included within the design of Judaism. One aspect is directed to the simple and common folk which is the simple religion and simple faith, while the other aspect is the higher, more abstract, more intellectual version designed for the philosophers of every generation.

An appealing view for skeptics, I think.

As anyone familiar with the likes of Maimonides' philosophy would know, his ideas were far off the popular bent. God was an unspeakable thing which could not be given any direct characteristics inasmuch that they would be a false understanding of God and an anthropomorphization or corporealization of His Being. Providence only applies inasmuch as God supplies humanity with the ability to protect and support itself. Prophecy only exists inasmuch as those with highly attuned minds can "tap into" the Active Intellect which exists throughout all of space. Even the afterlife only consists of those individuals who have properly processed their minds in such a way that the Active Intellect is capable of meshing with their individual intellect. The Mitzvot in themselves have no intrinsic value, but only insofar as they help man order his thinking to properly understand God and orient himself with the Active Intellect.

This was Maimonides' conception of what I'd call "higher Judaism." He also supported and argued for the idea of what he called "necessary beliefs," which were those beliefs which the general Jewish population had to hold in order for the religion to hold together and to allow for society to progress normally. Yet these "necessary beliefs" were not necessarily true or necessarily believed by Maimonides himself. Indeed, there are numerous scholars who demonstrate that he contradicts his own famous Principles of Faith. I think that the gamut of "necessary beliefs" are the way in which "lower Judaism" operates.

Lower Judaism has its purpose like all good religions do. To supply men with meaning, have them act morally, etc. Not all men have the capacity to reach the levels of Higher Judaism, but Lower Judaism is still true enough for the masses to live good meaningful lives. Lower Judaism also acts as a type of boundary weltanschauung with which the more curious or adept minds attempt to "escape" from as it just doesn't seem quite right. (See Matrix reference here.)

Now, I'm not arguing for the view that Judaism was actually designed with these two conceptions from the beginning, but perhaps it could be constructed. What Judaism needs to survive and from falling into the depths of Medieval-type dogmatism is a Higher form which theoretically supports much of traditional Judaism (for a philosophy without coherent practice is short lived) but is significantly different from the poor theologies of Orthodoxy. Maimonides' conceptions could have been it, but they don't seem very realistic either for the skeptical minded, though they are still more appealing than the alternative.

So the question is now, who will help create Higher Judaism?

Monday, December 19, 2005

Heat Death

There was a time in the imaginable void of the distant past when there was nothing and there was everything. All was encompassed in the largest and the smallest as size had no meaning and everything was wholly one. This was not really time, nor was it really space, but it was. Some call it the singularity, some call it God, some have no words to express the idea of this incredible thing which existed for all time and for no time and which existed by itself and for itself. It was a unity beyond all comprehension.

And it thought. Not thought in the way of cognitive judgement of ideas, but thought in a consciousness that was not conscious and of ideas that could not be called ideas. It did this for eternity and it did this for just an instant, but finally and suddenly it decided. It decided to die.

In an instant of endless compassion and boundless generosity it began to destroy itself in a brilliant explosion of energy and of space and of time. It released into itself an unimaginable wealth of energy which it had been storing in its being. Its unity and the highest order of its existence began to fall as it became fractured and particularized inside. This was painful, in a way.

These strange fractured and particularized parts interacted. They grew complex and they formed what we now call things like atoms and stars and solar systems. They grew galaxies and they lit up the expanding vacuum. They formed planets and oceans and they formed LIFE. But as they formed these complex structures and systems the pure energy of the unity of the universe was degraded. Forever it would hurt the universe in this endless tradeoff to have entropy always increasing for the sake of localized ordered existences. But this was the choice of the universe and it could not turn back now. It gives of itself and it sees its own inevitable entropic heat death so many eons in the future, but it does not weep and it does not regret.

We ordered conscious minds grow and we multiply and the universe rejoices for it is our kind which made its sacrifice worthwhile. We exist because the universe dies. We enjoy sustenance from the flow of blood from the death wound of the whole. Through its gift do we exist and through its death do we live.

Let us be thankful.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

35th World Zionist Congress; Vote!

Register to vote in the 35th World Zionist Congress here. Internet registration is available until February 15th and votes will be taken until February 28th.

Don't know who to vote for?: Current platforms.

To be eligible to register you must agree with the Jerusalem Program which's stated goals are:

-The unity of the Jewish people, its bond to its historic homeland Eretz Yisrael, and the centrality of the State of Israel and Jerusalem, its capital, in the life of the nation;
-Aliyah to Israel from all countries and the effective integration of all immigrants into Israeli Society.
-Strengthening Israel as a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state and shaping it as an exemplary society with a unique moral and spiritual character, marked by mutual respect for the multi-faceted Jewish people, rooted in the vision of the prophets, striving for peace and contributing to the betterment of the world.
-Ensuring the future and the distinctiveness of the Jewish people by furthering Jewish, Hebrew and Zionist education, fostering spiritual and cultural values and teaching Hebrew as the national language;
-Nurturing mutual Jewish responsibility, defending the rights of Jews as individuals and as a nation, representing the national Zionist interests of the Jewish people, and struggling against all manifestations of anti-Semitism;
-Settling the country as an expression of practical Zionism.

This has been a public service anouncement.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Absurdity of Absurdities!

Let me explain the biggest philosophical rut that I and the rest of the 21st century's forward thinking folks are stuck in. Most people, even highly intelligent and well-read ones, will ignore this issue, often, I suspect because it makes them uncomfortable as no great answers to it are forthcoming.

The problem is that we humans really have no sufficient basis for forming any lasting metaphysical philosophy because as we are living in a scientific age where any such philosophy must be based at least somewhat on the standard epistemological foundations. And yet as soon as we create one based on the scientific knowledge as we know it to be, a new fact is discovered which destroys this philosophy from the very beginning. There is too much change going on in modern times about our understanding of humanity and the universe for any philosophy made today to be long-lasting. Trying to make one is an effort in futility.

For example, it's silly to try and deduce functions of human psychology, which is popularly done in modern society, because few of those conclusions have evidential support. In order to truly be convincing people just want to see the scientific study and the data found. The conclusions from those fancy philosophical thoughts can easily be disproved based on experiments done by a graduate student at some community college. Perhaps that is a little exaggeration, but still there does not seem to be much value in thinking about the fundamental drives and reasons for human action without first considering input from guys like neurologists and psychologists.

And yet to live meaningfully in our short existences we must find a philosophy by which we can judge actions and goals and virtues in a way that does not seem forced or artificial. To do so we _must_ find our thinking going outside what is known and what perhaps what can be known. Perhaps we conceptualize things like gods, or geists, or the Good, but in any case we are escaping from scientific thinking and considering the irrational. And yet our rational, critical minds won't allow us to seriously consider such things.

We find that we must consider the irrational but at the same time we cannot consider the irrational. Absurdity of absurdities!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Freaky Frumteens

Once in awhile I am drawn to look at the discussions being had at the Frumteens website, either on my own or directed by other bloggers for especially egregious statements, and I find that I need to surf the site in absolute amazement like a person who can't walk away from watching a horrible car accident on the street.

I see people making statements without apologetics regarding the "background" level which goyim hold, the same as animals and plants, in the eschatology of their belief system. I see them being so sure about their beliefs based on obviously piss-poor arguments. The Kuzari would be proud... The weird secret Moderator promotes a scary life of anti-intellectualism and where man cannot judge morality for himself.

Their entire world is crazily shifted at 57 degrees from rationality. Reading through some of those discussions makes my head swirl. They live in a wonderland that I find impossible to relate to and I seriously cannot understand how I could have ever been even remotely associated with a such a worldview.

But then I think about their discussions from a different perspective. I see their foundational beliefs and later arguments as being so off the mark that they might as well be from bizarro world. Even in terms of logical structure and understanding they fail time and time again. Yet, now, suppose God exists and looks into the debates of atheists and serious skeptics...might it be that He is thinking the same thing? Just a thought.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Bleeding Hearts Love Murderers

Have you heard this stuff about saving Tookie Williams, four time murderer and founder of the Crips Gang from the death penalty? LINK

These kinds of things are absurd in my view. This guy is a murderer. He has been living on borrowed time for the last 25 years that he spent in prison. Have pity on the family he killed, not this piece of crap.

Some people really don't know what a needy cause is...

Subjugation of Women: the Shidduch Way

Michelle over at her In My Humble Jewish Opinion blog writes a post about her concerns regarding the "Shidduch Crisis" where the average age for married girls has been falling to around the 18 year mark. See here.

My response was:

The "crisis" is part and parcel of the whole effort to keep girls from engaging in serious business and academic pursuits. If the girl's goal in life is to get married, then she won't even think about getting any advanced degrees and there's definitely no time to do anything substantial if there's a baby on the way the following year.

Getting girls married when they're still young and dependent is a perfect method for subjugating women. It's that simple.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Kollel Check

"One, however, who makes up his mind to study Torah and not to work but live on charity, profanes the name of God, brings the Torah into contempt, extinguishes the light of religion, brings evil upon himself, and deprives himself of the world to come, for it is forbidden to derive any temporal advantage from the words of the Torah. The sages said: "Whoever makes selfish use of the teachings of the Torah takes his own life." They further told us: "Do not make of them a crown wherewith to magnify yourself, nor a spade wherewith to dig." They urged us strongly moreover: "Love work, and hate arrogance. All Torah study with is not combined with some work must at length fail and occasion sin" (Pirkai Avot). The end of such a person will be that he will rob his fellow man." (Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah. 3:10)

"Whoever does not teach his son a trade, it is as though he taught him to commit robbery." (Kiddushin 29a)

This is just a comment on the modern kollel movement where married men are lead not to go to college or to work, but to be largely dependent on their communities, families, and on their wives. Now, I'm not totally lambasting the kollel practice. I do think it is important to have a learned class of Jews who are deeply familiar with a good chunk of our cultural texts and the historical sources for Halacha. But at the same time such efforts should not be used as an excuse not to begin one's real life or to be wasted on fakers who don't really care to learn.

I think Jews of all stripes can appreciate that.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Scary Stuff

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has openly called for Israel to be wiped off the map. "The establishment of the Zionist regime was a move by the world oppressor against the Islamic world," the president told a conference in Tehran on Wednesday, entitled The World without Zionism. "

The skirmishes in the occupied land are part of a war of destiny. The outcome of hundreds of years of war will be defined in Palestinian land," he said.

"As the Imam said, Israel must be wiped off the map," said Ahmadinejad, referring to Iran's revolutionary leader Ayat Allah Khomeini.

The Palestinians are worry anough, but is Iran going to really start giving trouble now too? I know it is nothing new, but Iran's newest leader seems more eager to see war than previous ones. And then they've got the nuclear potential to boot.

: Wary of the future... :

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Universe: Accident or Intentional?

So a forum poster and I are having a little debate on the origins of the universe over at The Frum Skeptics Group. I think the set-up is pretty obvious here. This is already a few posts in.

"I find both possibilities equally reasonable - or rather - equallyunreasonable. Given how little we know about how universes are created(nothing, actually) - I find the very claim that either possibility ismore likely - unreasonable."

That's only on a very strict empirical sense. It's true we don't have any experience of how universes are created but it isn't necessarily the worst idea to base our beliefs about how the universe came to be on our experience of how things come to be within the universe.
It's true you can, in a purely logical standpoint, reject the analogy - but it is also true that we have nothing else to go on.

Furthermore, I never said anything about "likelihood," I asked solely about the reasonableness of the assumption.

Suppose you have to choose - accidental or intentional - why would you choose accidental when everything in your experience says otherwise. It's true that your experience could be a poor sample group, but again, THAT'S ALL YOU'VE GOT. I say it is a bigger jump to assume it is an accident then to match it with intent.

"You keep insisting that this universe is 'complex and impressive'. I will keep pointing out that you have no basis in making this claim."

Since I can only compare it to other things in my experience, it is the biggest, most complex and impressive structure that I know of. I keep repeating myself when I say I know it is not logically foolproof, it certainly _could_ be objectively pitiful and boring, but I don't have the luxury of that viewpoint nor the opportunity to ever get it. I can only make a decision on the knowledge I do have - even as limited as it may be.

At least with an assumption of intent I can justify my view with my experience, even while admitting its poorness in quality. But to assume the universe an accident means that you reject even your experience and lay your hat merely upon proving that you do not find the logical necessity of my view compelling.

What is your justification for assuming the universe is an accident? You have not proven that intentional creation is wrong, you have merely shown that it is not logically necessarily correct - which is fine. The same could be done to any scientific theory. Induction has that weakness.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Outreach Agenda

I went to a Shabbaton this past Friday night at the Hillel in my college. The food was fairly standard, though I was upset that there was no soup. Ah, what can you do? The group there was fairly homogeneous. Just about all kids with yeshivah educations as far as I could tell.

Anyway, after the meal it became very apparent that there was an agenda behind this shabbaton. The Rabbi gets up and asks if "we feel a responsibility to our fellow Jews." Say what? What's this all about? Responsibility in what sense?

Later on this was clarified as we get into circle time and basically discuss outreach. So this is "responsibility" in a religious way. Aha. The questions discussed are whether we should do outreach, what kind of outreach we mean, and how it should be done. The basic general consensus that I found there was that "outreach" meant turning non-religious Jews into religious Jews. And I swear, some of the things people were saying made me think I was at a Southern Baptist convention where they were working out strategies to help those poor souls who "don't even know they need helping."

Some of the people there clearly only understood proper outreach as making Jews into fundamentalist members of Orthodoxy and one individual even said that the only "right" form of Judaism was defined as one where adherents believe that the Torah was given to Moses, to Joshua, to the Elders, etc. Yikes! It's really rather scary having that type of thing thrown at you and obviously being taken so seriously when it's generally latent among most of Orthodoxy. I mean, yes, they believe it, but they'll more often state their beliefs in more generic ways. It's usually part of the background beliefs and not present in the forebrain, if you know what I mean. Having fundamentalism so fronted without apologetics is stunning.

The whole discussion was a little unsettling for me and I had to play a little privacy game of how much to express and how much to keep hidden. You see, while I do not want to see Jews losing the whole of their identity, I also don't want to see them being taken in by a cultish organization not based on truth. I mean, it was scary, the people in the group were even discussing getting to people who felt lost and were at a crossroads in their life and for them to offer Orthodoxy as a path. That's exactly the type of sneaky methodology that cults try.

My way of "outreach" would be to get Jews interested in their history and their heritage as a people and to get them interested in the philosophical, theological, and moral contributions which Jews and Judaism have produced. I'd want them to establish a strong identity as Jews rather than for them to follow a strict set of rules and believe in a strict set of dogmas. I believe in a plurality of Jewish expressions that will lead to Jewish survivability. The Orthodox Jews at the Shabbaton may only consider Orthodoxy as "real" Judaism, but people like me can see in Judaism a richer wellspring of variable legitimate Jewish expression.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Necessity of Faith?

Are the skeptics useful? So asks Hayim.

"The problem starts when the community leans too heavily in one direction. Freewheeling "metaphysics", or an exaggerated emphasis on scholarship to the detriment of other approaches of Judaism, are deplorably overprevalent in our day and age. So we need the skeptics, if only to give us a reality check on the direction our community is taking.

On the other hand, an excess in the opposite direction is even more disastrous. I, for one, would not want to be in Mis-Nagid's shoes. Overskepticism, i.e. the drive to only destroy and never build, must leave you unfulfilled and sour. I am glad to see that some still realize this."

Are you familiar with R' Kook? What you say here is pretty similar to his views. He said that atheists weren't rejecting God, they were rejecting faulty human images of God. That they were actually serving true Monotheism by keeping the faithful on their toes and keeping them from slipping into comfortable easy-thinking heresy.

What you call "overskepticism" would actually be a form of nihilism. This is the where the individual believes essentially in _nothing_. Does not believe in morals, human values, respected traditions, patriotism, progress, the future, and disbelief in religion and God go without saying.

Some nihilists even go so far as to say that there is no point at all in living (since they hold value in nothing). They only strive for the end and to help others get there too through helpful mutual destruction.

There are some who argue that the necessary conclusion of systematic skeptical thinking is the arrival at some form of nihilism. They have a point. If you keep asking "why?" you will eventually hit a wall, an axiom, that you must actively choose to accept, or not. Those that find that they cannot accept even those axioms are often lead directly to nihilism, which is really a depressing and dangerous place to be.

To note though, I do not believe that Mis-nagid is a nihilist.

I, for one, do not think nihilism is good thing. Nor do I think is unrestrained credulity. There may be a happy middle ground, but frankly, I'm not really a fan of this "faith" business at all. What I am slowly realizing though is that even while we may not like faith, it is a necessary and unentangleable part of meaningful human life.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Kabbalah Corruption; Just a Matter of Time

Kabbalah Center head charged with defrauding cancer patient

"She asked them to help her get better, and Rosenberg said that whoever donates a serious sum of money to the center can achieve a full recovery," Zonis recalled. "I immediately offered to donate around NIS 5,000, but we were told that we have to donate 'a sum that will be painful for us' and not an easy expenditure and we were asked to donate $30,000."

The couple borrowed money from relatives and friends and tapped their long-term savings to pay the center by credit card, in two installments. In return, the couple was promised, members of the center would pray for them. Leah Zonis was told she could buy a bottle of holy water, which would aid her recovery if she drank it.


"He told us that the previous donation we made was apparently not enough and that we have to donate more," Boris Zonis explained. "We had no money by then so we turned to Leah's mother, a woman who had worked hard all her life, and it was she who agreed to give us her savings - some $25,000. They specifically told us that this time when we give the money, Leah will get complete health, and again they promised to read from the 'Zohar' book specially for her."

"The woman's condition continued to deteriorate," the couple's lawyer, Haim Cohen, charged Sunday, "and instead of telling the truth, that these were empty promises, they took more money and cheated with a medication that is just a bottle of water."

Not long before his wife died, Zonis asked Youdkevitch for financial help. He says he was directed to an unknown donor who was asked to help him and gave him $5,000. Despite that, Leah realized shortly before her death that she had been the victim of fraud and asked her husband to go to the police."

She was a sick person, on the verge of despair. And in that state a patient grabs at any straw to be saved. They were our straw until we realized that we had been exploited," according to Zonis.

Disgusted, yes. Surprised? No.

Holiday Obligations

I recently had a conversation with someone who said that he looked down on the goyish holidays like Thanksgiving because there are no obligations to the day. It's a day off, but you don't actually have to do anything as one would on Jewish holidays. There are no Halachic responsibilities to fulfill.

To an extent I understood what he was staying and I do appreciate that Jewish holidays are often more community-oriented and there are things that need to be done that add to the holiday aura. The hunt for top notch esrogim, while silly in one sense, does add to the festivities in some hard to define way. It just wouldn't be Succot if such hunting stories weren't shared.

But the fact is, Thanksgiving is full of traditions even if there are those individuals who don't partake. A big meal with the obvious traditional foods, different types of holiday decorations in the halls or on the lawn, and even to seriously sit down and count your blessings. In the same way that people compare the size of their turkeys I see people talking about the level of beauty in their esrogim or how late they finished their seder or how long their break was on Yom Kippur. Of course there are those that don't care for any of those things and simply do not involve themselves, but regardless of that these are aspects of the traditional holiday observance that still exist.

It is true that many Americans can go through Memorial Day with just a barbecue, if that. But some take it very seriously and may take a few hours of their day to visit a veterans' cemetery to show their respects and deep appreciation for the sacrifices of others for their sake. Some towns schedule whole events and parades and really make a big deal of it all.

So I think the differences are really relative. The person I spoke to just didn't see American customs as obligatory. On Jewish holidays there are things that need to be done a certain way or else the holiday is not properly fulfilled and for some serious-minded Americans it is exactly the same way.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Contra Mr. Professor

By the way, those who say that Judaism and general Halachic observance cannot survive a realization that following it cannot be justified through divine command actually devalue their religion and Halacha. They are essentially saying that the laws make no good sense in themselves and the only reason Jews will continue to do them is if they are convinced God commands it of them. They are saying that there is no internal value in the Law.

For other people who recognize value inherent to the Law, at least in a general sense, they don't need a divine source and it is through them that traditional observant Judaism will continue even after dogma falls.

Take that Mr. Professor.

A Thesis Problem

I am currently taking a class in school where the students are supposed to write an original thesis paper at a scholarly level. It's supposed to be a year-long project. The semester had been going well so far but one day I came across a book that essentially was my paper of what I thought to be "original" work and I was in a bit of a puzzle. It was a rather specific topic, it isn't really important what the topic was, and I couldn't think of a way to take the paper from a different angle in order to make it different from this other work. So after some thought I decided to start over from scratch, choose an entirely new and different topic and go from there.

What I had thought to do was to engage my personal interests with my schoolwork in order to do both at the same time and really enjoy my work. It would be a relatively easy paper to write because I feel engrossed in the subject matter anyway. What I had chosen to investigate was basically a work following the obvious conclusions which came from the book "The Limits of Orthodox Theology" by Marc B. Shapiro. As many people reading this post already know, Shapiro demonstrates with clear argument and overwhelming erudition that many great rabbis and experts on Halachah, both before and after the time of Maimonides, who are today held in great standing by Orthodox groups, did not hold by all the principles of Maimonides and in some cases he shows that even Maimonides himself contradicts a couple of these principles. These individuals cannot be considered heretics, since if they were then the entire foundation of Orthodoxy falls apart. The conclusion from this reasoning is simple: the fundamental principles cannot really be so fundamental at all.

The clear questions which follow then are what is the nature of dogma in Judaism? Is there any? And if there is, what are the true fundamental principles?

I know this could potentially be a gigantic effort to work out, but I figured I could tease out a more narrow subject to write about for my paper while actually doing the work independently on this larger effort. I suspect that one may not be able to speak of the fundamental principles for "Judaism" itself, but perhaps for each movement insofar as they have certain general similarities in themselves which provide structure. The fundamental principles then would be, in theory, what is common to all these groups. I suspect they would be very minimal.

I showed this idea of study to my professor and he was very interested. He said that it was quite appropriate for the time we live in and had deep contemporary relevance. "What do you mean by that?" I asked. He said that it was a good commentary of our age of existential crisis where people all over are trying to grab onto _something_ and identify themselves by it. One could say that it is an unconscious response to nihilism which is found in the modern rising strength of fundamentalist movements.

After that I visited my faculty advisor (every student in the class needs to find a faculty member to work with) and I showed him my work. He also seemed interested but since he's just an English teacher (a goy to beat too) he said that he really had no knowledge of what I was proposing and that I should find a different advisor to work with. He suggested a Jewish professor who had recently gotten a grant for studying textual oddities in the Bible and he thought that guy would be a good person to work with.

Ok fine then, I went off to find the guy and have a conversation. I thought to myself that he doesn't sound like a bad choice. Although he's an Orthodox Jew (ostensibly, at least) as I found through a quick web search, he was studying textual oddities in the Bible in a scholarly way, so how much of a closed mind could he be? Indeed, I was even hoping that he was skeptical in a way a lot like me.

When I gave him a call and we started talking, he was obviously a smart and well read guy. I was telling him about my previous topic and my problems with it and he knew off the bat who I was talking about and the general ideas behind it. I was impressed anyway. But soon I lead to discussing my new topic and he also knew right away what "The Limits of Orthodox Theology" was and the author. But then he said that the book was "devastating." Huh? Devastating? He seemed so excited upon my mentioning of the work, I thought he considered it a good bit of scholarship, but then how is it devastating? It was an odd response and so I asked him about it.

It was obvious then that he stepped out of "professor" mode and stepped into "Orthodox Jew" mode. He said it was devastating because it undermines the Principles in very scholarly and probably irrefutable way. See, it was devastating because it damaged his belief system, the legitimacy of Orthodoxy and the survivability of Judaism, in his mind. He asked me if I believed that the Torah we have today is the same as the one God gave to Moses (principle #8/9). I replied to him in an uncharacteristically open way that I was "highly skeptical" of such a notion. Well then, he said, if we doubt that the Torah we have is not the same as the one from God then we cannot trust it for sacred history or for legitimacy of Halacha. Following Halacha then turns into a lifestyle choice since all divine compulsion is removed and then the religion is gone.

After he started going in that direction I was rather unwilling to start an argument and all I responded was, "Well, yeah, in a sense." And then he seemed to get really upset and he replied, "No, dammit, in every sense!" Ok then...

Following that I was getting eager to get off the phone and I started to speak in very clipped responses. I think he got the message. He said that he was not the guy to be an advisor for me and suggested I hunt down a guy from the Judaic Studies department. I thanked him and hung up.

Yeesh! Although I had considered some controversy in the chosen topic of study I really wasn't prepared for that kind of response from a college professor. I thought professors would stay mostly aloft from personal convictions and just make sure that my work followed certain guidelines and stayed at a scholarly level. They might disagree with my paper or my conclusions, but if I had the sources and made the argument, what is it to them?

I sat down and went deep into thought. I had to write out a whole report and make a presentation on my progress so far on my project in two weeks but if I was going to get that kind of response then I had to reconsider what I was going to do. I could present in class and have the few Jews in the class ask my funny questions and maybe look at me a little differently, but I didn't think that was a big deal. What I was nervous about was that type of thing being spread around and having my public reputation tarnished in a negative way. That kind of negative attention to me was not worth saving myself the little bit of work of writing a paper on a topic of more neutral interest. But on the other hand, I still had my original project and its same problem which prompted me to switch topics in the first place and it was way too late start a new project. What was I to do?

I stayed deep in thought for a couple of hours. I even went to my lab while in this trance-like state, though I'm lucky enough to have the best lab partner who let me work out my little problem while she took care of all the lab work. (You know who you are MP ;-) ) Eventually though, I figured out what the best solution is - postpone the whole issue! I'll tell my professor and my original advisor that I'm going back to my original topic but I'll also present my problem with it. Maybe in my presentation the other students of the class will be able to see things from a slightly different way and they'll have some solutions in how to write a slightly different but original thesis. I'm not very hopeful that they will, but it's enough of a report to finish off this semester and gives me the time to start over with an entirely new project next semester if need be.

Although the solution does solve my problem temporarily, it leaves me a little cold in that it seems that my work was effectively shut down (publically at least) because of the negative reaction of one man. Am I so self-protective that critical reactions can control what I do? Bothersome. I won't stop my investigations privately, but will I one day have the will to produce and publish my work publically? I hope so.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Implications of Free Will

I know that it really feels like we are free, but even more importantly, if we do not have free will then our lives lose a heck of a lot of meaning. It's a depressing view where we are mere biochemical machines thinking that we choose how we act but where even our very thoughts and desires are determined by mindless chemical interactions. We cannot then assign moral value to anything and even praise or blame for any action whatsoever is entirely misplaced.

After chewing on that for awhile I think most people will not want to live in such a worthless view of life and decide that they believe in free will regardless of what the evidence so far supports. Whether free will exists or not, I don't know, but the point is that in "choosing" free will we demonstrate that the positivist's method is not good enough to build a meaningful philosophy. We find that we must engage in speculation and live as if many unproven things are true. Essentially, even the atheist must have a form of faith.

With such a realization it is apparent that the atheist can no longer claim complete rationality in his views. Does this prove the theist correct? Not at all. But it does serve to hurt the atheist's standing and perhaps provides the justification to begin exploring other meaningful kinds of speculation.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Our Valuable Judaism

"I mean Jewish life was always meant to be in Israel. I look at Judaism as a national culture, not a religion per se. And a national culture should have a national home land. It really doesn't make sense to have a separate Jewish law in this modern day and age. I think it made sense when the Jewish people didn't have a home land. Wow, I'm sounding like a Zionist! I never really thought of myself as a Zionist. I know you disagree, and I would be interested to hear why"

I think there is more to Judaism than just a national culture, though it is that. I know it sounds corny, but it is a way of life and gives each Jew a sense, if they're so inclined, of history and peoplehood and connectance and tradition that transcends anything else of impermanence that is our modern world. One could make the argument that the land of Israel is the only "proper" place for Judaism, but I think that Israel is really just a base of operations for Jewish activities abroad. It is important and it is of immeasurable value that any Jew can call it home, but there is greater strength in Judaism and Jewish communities elsewhere that give testament through their staying power even in the most adverse conditions.

I think it has incredible power that a person can live in America, be an American citizen and so on and at the same time be a Jew. We Jews are world travelers and we have the freedom to settle anywhere and still retain our sense of identity without being coddled in the womb of a single state. Yes, you could call it a "national culture" but it's really more of a peoplehood identity program that is not restricted to mere physical boundaries.

In some ways it does restrict us, but really it frees us. You as an individual can go anywhere and do whatever you want, but you will get lost in the river of history and will be an orphan to time. As a Jew you retain a sense of self that nothing in the world can take away. And while your great great grandchildren may not know who you are, they may not even know your name, they'll still be able to know you in some sense as their family's history becomes their community's history and eventually their people's history. It is this connectance to something larger than mere individuals that is of real value.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Concerns About Humanism

I asked an atheist Humanist a few questions:

edit: This was the Jewish Atheist, and the discussion is located here.

"I (usually) believe in free will because it feels so strongly like I have it. I'm also fascinated by the fact that I have no plausible explanation for how it works."

Me too, but the very fact that I do that bothers me. We take free will on faith, essentially, but in doing so we damage our stance in reason. Doesn't the theist do exactly the same thing?

I ask: "Why should the Humanist act morally?"

He answered: "Empathy plus the belief that no person has more worth than another."

I think it is a little more complex than that. Why should we necessarily trust our empathetic feeings? Emotions are notoriously irrational.

It bothers me that we really have two choices. We can go down one path and find our lives devoid of any meaning and worth. In the strict positivist stance we cannot even say that we are free, or moral, or conscious. We are mindless animals equipped with illusory control and a fictional sense of morality.

Or we can give credence to ideas that really do not deserve credence in a strict empirical sense, but which provide our lives with order and meaning and value. The Humanist might be able to restrict this urge to free will and meaningful moral commands, but can he truly judge himself as being less irrational than the theist? Maybe in degree, but certainly not in kind.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Free the Mamzer

Wolf has a recent discussion on his blog about the pros and cons about giving Orthodox marriages for otherwise unOrthodox couples for fear of creating mamzerim.

Ok, that's fine and all and I can understand why you'd want to avoid having more mamzerim around if you hold by the laws stringently. As far as anyone knows, most people are not mamzerim and a mamzer can only marry other mamzerim (or converts). It leaves quite a stigma which never goes away. No matter how far the initial mamzer's line descends. His lineage will forever be one of mamzerim.

However, let's look at this more closely. What is the only real difference between a mamzer and a non-mamzer? The only real difference is this social stigma and the limitations on who the individual can marry. The only reason one would not want to be a mamzer is because one'll be looked down on by all the non-mamzerim and will be limited in marriage choices.

Wouldn't the social situation be so much better if _everyone_ were mamzerim. Then there would be no "untouchable" nebuch class in Judaism and there would be no marriage restrictions (beyond the other regular stuff). And one a mamzer, always a mamzer, so there would be no way to turn back into "regular" Israelite.

I say we should just assume we are all mamzerim and not worry about it. What's the worst that could happen? We could marry a mamzer and our kids could really be mamzerim? Oh no, that's exactly the same.

Just so y'all know, I'm not a mamzer, but I do work for the Free the Mamzer Foundation. Check us out at FMF.org

My Views on the 13

1. Belief in the existence of a Creator and of providence

Well, I don't believe the Universe has existed eternally, nor do I think it likely that the whole complexity and highly ordered nature of our world was merely an accident. But on that same token, the idea that an eternal, intelligent superbeing wished it all into existence also strikes me as absurd.

What I can believe is that there is some creative force on which our world's existence depends on. That force may or may not have any sort of consciousness or intelligence or be a "person" in any sense, though I think it is more likely impersonal. Its "providence" can only be summed up as far as the qualities that the reasoned order of our universe supplied to life and living beings so prodigiously that they could survive and prosper through their own activities.

2. Belief in His unity

To term this force "His" is pushing it, but that's likely just metaphorical. Though I also have no problem in believing that there is only one fundamental creative/maintaining force on which the world depends.

3. Belief in His incorporeality

I also have no issue in understanding this force to be without material form.

4. Belief in His eternity

As far as the universe is inclusive to "all of time," since time itself is a product of our universe, this force would exist as long as the universe would - which would be "for all time." Essentially eternal since time is likely illusory anyway.

5. Belief that worship is due to Him alone

If there's anything that deserves worship it would be this force. Though I'm not thrilled with "worshiping" anything. I like to think more along the lines of feeling in awe and having deep respect for all that I see in the natural world. This is akin to the views of Einstein.

6. Belief that G-d communicates with man through prophecy

What is "prophecy" exactly? If it is understood in the sense that "prophecy" is man's connection with a new idea, where he might find a muse hiding in the regularity of everyday life, that I can understand. Since "God" is really the sum of all that is in existence, these new ideas and abilities to learn and to understand can only come from God. "Prophecy" is the point at which one can say, "Eureka!" or come to some deep emotional understanding where some connection is made through our mental powers which, along with all other things, from some creative force which underlies the whole. In this sense I can believe in prophecy.

7. Belief that Moses was the greatest of all the prophets

In following the Jewish tradition, Moses (assuming he existed, though even if he didn't and things were just attributed to him) was the one who set the basic foundations for what Judaism is and how it would be forevermore. He surely had great insights to produce such a solid basis from which Judaism has maintained itself for so many millennia and from which so many other people of the world through Christianity and Islam find meaning. In this sense, whether in history or in legend, Moses was the greatest prophet.

8. Belief in the revelation of the Torah to Moses at Sinai

What does it mean to be a revelation? Ultimately, all things come from this creative force so how can the Torah not be? Does this mean it is divine in origin? Not really. But we must hold strong meaning for it anyway because we have given it meaning through so many years of tradition and history that now the Torah is (and has been) an integral part of Judaism and what it means to be a Jew.

Do I think a personal, intelligent superbeing gave Moses the Torah word for word? No. But I do think Moses (or whoever wrote it and later attributed to Moses) hit on some great ideas and in this sense we ought to hold it in high regard. Especially since the Torah has such deep meaning in Judaism and to the Jewish understanding of identity that it cannot really be separated from what it is to be a Jew.

9. Belief in the unchangeable nature of the revealed Law

Even the Mishnah and Talmud don't really hold by this as they create so many new ideas and sometimes controvert the basic meaning of the scriptural text. What is a prozbul exactly? And how come an "eye for an eye" isn't taken literally? We can thank our forward-thinking Jewish ancestors for that. I think Halachah is of vital importance to Jewish identity and Judaism's longevity, but that it is of divine origin or forever unchangeable, that I do not agree with.

The basic foundations of the Law, however, respect for human life, compassion for your fellow human beings, maintaining the environment, etc. These I do see as incontrovertible and fundamental. The technical laws themselves can and should change as the social situations change (for example how women are viewed and treated in Orthodoxy today) but the fundamental _spirit_ of the laws must be maintained.

10. Belief that G-d is omniscient

Since I don't believe that "God" is even conscious or capable of "knowing" anything, it makes it incredibly difficult to imagine this apersonal force being omniscient, i.e. all knowing. Though, again, if all things are inclusive within "God" then the sum of all that is known must be what God knows. Thus God knows all that is known - all knowing.

11. Belief in divine reward & retribution in this world and in the hereafter

Perhaps in the sense of strict rationality, one can find that generally you will live a happier and healthier life if you are a good person, are friendly and cooperative with others, etc. People who are mean and uncooperative will often live poor lonely lives. There is some balance here. If you are a rotten person, people will generally not want to be your friend. Also, if you break the law, perhaps you'll get away with it, but many other times you will get caught. The world is not perfect and there are countless examples of injustice, but there is also some justice to be found. I believe it is humanity's responsibility to bring as much justice as can be brought into the world.

In the sense that humanity is derived from the creative force and concepts like justice and right and wrong are also from this source, reward and punishment become possible in human experience. Were the universe mindlessly random, these concepts would have no meaning. These things do exist, but I think only to the extent that human beings bring them into existence.

In the "afterlife," I can only say that justice is done on the individual through how he is remembered by the people that knew him and what kind of reputation he held. Do you wish to be remembered as an asshole or a great contributor to the betterment of humanity? That choice is up to you. I don't think, however, that really any part of us as a conscious mind survives the body in death. What survives us is our works, our name, and our reputation.

12. Belief in the coming of the Messiah

I believe that humanity can improve itself. That we can all be better people. That we can invent new technologies to make our quality of life better. That we can discover new philosophies and new ideas with which to give our lives more meaning. In this sense I believe that we, as a species of moral, intelligent consciousnesses, are capable of progress on all fronts and may one day reach a "Messianic" age where all of humanity lives in peace with one another and where each individual's life is free from fear, hunger, pain, and need.

I don't believe that one man will ride up on a donkey and then see to the conquest of the whole world which will lead to Israel's ascendency on the world stage. As Gersonides once said, "a peace that comes from fear and not from the heart is the opposite of peace." I do think that one day the world will find peace through mutual respect and brotherhood and not through fear of the sword.

13. Belief in the resurrection of the dead

This "ikkar" has always confused scholars. The afterlife, in Judaism, is never the central feature of any theological theory and really holds little place in general Jewish metaphysics. Although it was standard fare to believe in an afterlife, what that afterlife would be like was freely speculated on and to this day there is no "Orthodox" view on the afterlife. Why then did Maimonides focus on this and make it a _fundamental_ of the Jewish faith?

I don't think resurrection of the dead is going to happen. And although you may read possible science fiction considerations of such a human project to reanimate all the dead human consciousnesses in the future (e.g. 3001 The Final Odyssey), I just don't think it is very likely or even possible. I think we get one shot at life and there is no "reset" button. Let's make the best of what we've got.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Gersonides the Heretic?

Levi ben Gershon, or Gersonides as he was known in more latinized circles, or the Ralbag as he is known in more Jewish circles lived in the beginning of the 14th century. He was a great astronomer/astrologer (there's a crater named after him on the Moon), an inventor, a halakhist, Torah commentator, and a philosopher. As a philosopher, he was one in a long line of Jewish Rationalists who met Aristotle's well known teachings and attempted to integrate them into traditional Jewish theology. Maimonides is the most famous of these Jewish Rationalists.

What is interesting about Gersonides, however, is that although he is a godol in Halacha and Torah commentator, his religious views were often highly unorthodox. When rationalism would grind against what the Torah said he would, as opposed to the methodology of Maimonides, find in favor of rationalism.

"The position of Levi ben Gershon in Jewish philosophy is unique. Of all the Jewish Peripatetics he alone dared to vindicate the Aristotelian system in its integrity, regardless of the conflict existing between some of its doctrines and the principal dogmas of Judaism. Possessed of a highly developed critical sense, Levi sometimes disagrees with Aristotle and asserts his own views in opposition to those of his master, Averroes (Islamic Rationalist); but when, after having weighed the pros and cons of adoctrine, he believes it to be sound, he is not afraid to profess it, even when it is directly at variance with an accepted dogma of Jewish theology. "The Law," he says, "can not prevent us from considering to be true that which our reason urges us to believe" (Introduction to the "Milchamot," p. 6)."

I've highlighted a few of his more unorthodox views:

On Omniscience: "In contrast to the theology held by Orthodox Judaism, Gersonides held with those who denied God's omnipotence. "Gersonides, bothered by the old question of how God's foreknowledge is compatible with human freedom, holds that what God knows beforehand is all the choices open to each individual. God does not know, however, which choice the individual, in his freedom, will make." (Louis Jacobs, God, Torah, Israel: Traditionalism without Fundamentalism)"

"The sublime thought of God, he says, embraces all the cosmic laws which regulate the evolutions of nature, the general influences exercised by the celestial bodies on the sublunary world, and the specific essences with which matter is invested; but sublunary events, the multifarious details of the phenomenal world, are hidden from His spirit."

On the soul and immortality: "Gersonides posits that people's souls are composed of two parts: a material, or human, intellect; and an acquired, or agent, intellect.. The material intellect is inherent in every person, and gives people the capacity to understand and learn. This material intellect is mortal, and dies with the body. However, he also posits that the soul also has an acquired intellect. This survives death, and can contain the accumulated knowledge that the person acquired during their lifetime. For Gersonides, Seymour Feldman points out, "Man is immortal insofar as he attains the intellectual perfection that is open to him. This means that man becomes immortal only if and to the extent that he acquires knowledge of what he can in principle know, e.g. mathematics and the natural sciences. This knowledge survives his bodily death and constitutes his immortality." (Gersonides, Trans. Seymour Feldman Wars of the Lord, Book 1, p. 81, JPS, 1984)"

On Creation: "Having thus demonstrated that the world is not eternal "a parte ante" and is eternal "a parte post," Levi gives his own view of creation. He chooses a middle position between the theory of the existence of a primordial cosmic substance and that of a creation "ex nihilo," both of which he criticizes. According to him, there existed from eternity inert undetermined matter, devoid of form and attribute. At a given moment God bestowed upon this matter (which till then had only a potential existence) essence, form, motion, and life; and from it proceeded all sublunary beings and all heavenly substances, with the exception of the separated intelligences, which were direct emanations of the Divinity."

However, given such unusual views, it is to be expected that he would be criticized by the more traditional rabbis:

"Levi's philosophical theories, some of which influenced Spinoza (comp. "Theologico-Politicus," ch. ii., where Spinoza uses Levi's own terms in treating of miracles), met with great opposition among the Jews. While Hasdai Crescas criticized them on philosophical grounds, others attacked them merely because they were not in keeping with the ideas of orthodoxy. Isaac ben Sheshet (Responsa, No. 45), while expressing admiration for Levi's great Talmudical knowledge, censures his philosophical ideas, which he considers to be heresies the mere listening to which is sinful in the eyes of a pious Jew. Abravanel (commentary on Josh. x.) blames Levi in the harshest terms for having been so outspoken in his heretical ideas. Some zealous rabbis went so far as to forbid the study of Levi's Bible commentaries. Among these were Messer Leon Judah and Judah Muscato; the latter, applying to them Num. i. 49, says: "Only thou shalt not number the tribe of Levi, neither bring his Commentaries among the children of Israel" (Commentary on the "Cuzari," p. 4). Shem-Tob perverted the title "Milchamot Adonai" (= "Wars of God") into "Milchamot 'im Adonai" (= "Wars with God"); and by this corrupted title Levi's work is quoted by Isaac Arama and by Manasseh ben Israel, who attack it in most violent terms."

Despite all of these attacks however, the Ralbag is still found as a commentator in most printed Chumashim that have more than just Rashi and Onkelous. (Maimonides too had his fair share of critics and he too is found right along the great Torah commentators with the Ralbag.) And in modern strains of Orthodoxy, no Rishon can ever be "wrong." If a view was held by a Rishon, then that is an acceptable view in Orthodox Judaism.

What then does it mean to be "Orthodox" when there are so many options to believe? It is certainly apparent that Gersonides' views don't fit well with a number of Maimonides' "essential" thirteen ikkarim.

Sources: Jewish Encyclopedia and Wikipedia

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Not His Finest Hour

"A woman who studies Torah is rewarded, but not as much as a man is, for the reason that she has not been commanded to learn. Anyone who does something voluntarily is not rewarded as much as someone who is obligated to do it is. Even though she is rewarded for learning, the Sages commanded that one should not teach Torah to one's daughter, for the reason that most women don't have the mentality for learning, and they think of Torah matters as being nonsensical. The Sages said that teaching one's daughter Torah is like teaching her trivialities. This is talking only about the Oral Torah, but one nevertheless shouldn't teach her the Written Torah either, but if one did it is not like teaching her trivialities."

- The Rambam, Hilchot Yiseodei Hatorah

Monday, October 31, 2005

How To Get More Out Of Being Jewish

The book "How To Get More Out Of Being Jewish Even If: A. You are not sure you believe in God, B. You think going to synogogue is a waste of time, C. You think keeping kosher is stupid, D. You hated Hebrew school, or E. All of the above!" by Gil Mann is now available for free download here.

Don't worry, it's legit. Gil Mann himself sent me an email to tell me about it. I'm now in the middle of it myself via this venue and I think there are likely others here who would appreciate the opportunity as well. I think it'll be a good read.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Flexibility With a Firm Understanding

Yitzchak Blau wrote an article titled "Flexibility With a Firm Foundation: On Maintaining Jewish Dogma" where he discusses Marc Shapiro's recent book "The Limits of Orthodox Theology" and why Judaism must have a basic dogmatic core even if that core isn't necessarily as the Rambam described it in his famous set of thirteen.

As I wrote to the individual who sent me this article (with minor editing):

I actually have read Shapiro's book, it is an interesting topic and he does prove his case well, as the author of this article confirms. I also do see dogma in Judaism as an important part of its growth and continuance historically, however, I am not convinced that it is a necessary aspect for Jewish life indefinitely. It is also true, as the author states, that without an ideology of some sort, Jewish practices do become mindless behaviorism. And that is a situation that I do not desire. It is my goal to replace (at least in my own mind, but perhaps for others if they are so interested) new reasons for being traditional and continuing traditional activities without the burden of heavy insoluble dogma.

It is certain that this type of activity of making new reasons for continuing old practices has happened again and again in Jewish history. There are so many interpretations and new "insights" into customs and halachot that in many instances the original reasons for a custom have been lost to us.

I see all of Jewish history in a different light from most Orthodox rabbis and scholars. Judaism, either in terms of practice or belief, did not exist at its inception or over the centuries as it does today. There was a long evolutionary progression where practices and beliefs were created and ignored and where Judaism split and rejoined where some branches died out and other branches flourished. It is my view, for instance, that neither Pharisaism or Sadducism is the "correct" brand of Judaism, but that both are equally valid expressions of the same basic trunk. Neither Hasidism or the Misnagdim were "correct," they just took the source material and went different ways with it.

In this way, I can take ALL of historic Jewish expression and make it my own without declaring one sort heresy or apostasy as those terms cannot apply in my conceptions of Judaism. Judaism is the expressions of the Jewish people as they searched for meaning in the world and held together as a people. In the classic Hegelian sense, to understand Judaism is not to understand "correct" halacha and hashkafa, but to understand the whole progression of thoughts and practices as they formed through history and will continue to form into the future.

My orthopraxy is not the orthopraxy of mindless machinations but the understanding that every Jewish thing I do reaches and connects me back to my People's deepest past and secures it towards the unknowable future.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Why Learn If You Don't Have To?

A few days ago a came upon some Jewish girls who were discussing the Gemara. To clarify, they weren't talking about something within the Gemara but about how girls aren't "supposed" to study it. It's a huge deal in the darker realms of Orthodoxy that women should not learn Gemara and the Bais Yakovs drill that into the girl's heads that there is even something _wrong_ in women learning Gemara. That a woman learning Gemara is just a silly feminist urge to feel as good as men. This idea is further entrenched as a girl who learn's Gemara probably won't get a good shidduch. To think a man should support a wife in kollel...!

Ok fine, whatever. Obviously I disagree, I think Jewish girls should learn Gemara if they are so inclined. It is as much their heritage as it is the men's. Though I don't support studying Talmud to the exclusion of all else. The kollel drain is a problem too, but that's an entirely different topic...

Anyway, what struck me as terrible was what one girl said about it, "Why would you learn Gemara if you didn't have to?" She was referring to the belief that learning Gemara is a mandated obligation that Jewish men have to perform, but which Jewish women do not. But I thought that was a terrible approach to learning and is what is wrong with so much of the world today.

Why study anything if you don't have to?

It's of the same theme as those who say that subjects like geometry is "useless." No, it may not have any direct bearing in functionality in life, but it adds to your way of thinking, your culture, and frankly, knowledge is meaningful for its own sake. I really can imagine little else of more value than knowledge and wisdom.

Of course one can go through their entire life without ever knowing who Kant was or how the Persians formed their empire or what standard temperature and pressure is, but what a shallow superficial life such people must lead. This type of thinking is what leads to the vacuous nature of popular culture and unending commercialism and materialism.

Gemara is worth learning.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Foibles and Oddities

I've been tagged by the great Jewish Atheist to write about my own weird quirks and personal idiosyncrasies, so here goes:

1. I bite my nails. Not as a nervous habit, but as a determined method for cutting them. Sometimes I get a little zealous though.

2. In my wardrobe I have either t-shirts and jeans or a suit. I have no middle dress-casual.

3. I often have my television on, but I'm rarely looking at it.

4. On a related notion, one show I do watch is the Simpsons for which I hold complete loyalty and it kills me that they are being displaced in the public's eye by the newfangled Family Guy (which I also like, but still!).

5. I can't stand being in pointless yes/no arguments. If we're ever arguing about something and I can't prove it one way or the other based on the knowledge I already have, I'm always running to a computer to do a quick google search.

6. My room is always a mess...and you'd scream if you saw my bathroom.

7. I like driving, but I have a pretty awful sense of direction.

8. I actually really hate shopping. I will wear clothes that are worn out and have holes in them and I don't care.

9. I shave maybe once a week.

10. I will stay up extremely late (think when the wee hours start turning into real hours) and then complain all day about being tired. And, no, I never learn.

So basically, all the above makes me your general, run of the mill, college bum. ;-)

I am now tagging forward to Wolf, Ben Avuyah, and Sarah, but we'll have to wait and see if they're willing to go down to this level of blogging.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Af Bri: Angel of the Rain

I don't often post emails sent to me, but I thought this was an interesting topic and worth showing since it is rather timely as well. If the writer wants me to include his/her name/pseudonym on post, just leave a message or send me an email.

"A search for Af Bri, that name to which we address our first entreaty for rain in Tefilas Geshem, shows up inthe Angel Dictionary on Wicca and Wikipedia.

Do you know any info about the origins of this Af Briin Judaism or can you PROVE its pagan origins, to the exclusion of the defense that they got it from us? I cannot find the Jewish roots of this nor when or whereor why it entered the liturgy."

As far as I know, Af Bri first enters Judaism and the world at large at the introduction in the Tefilas Geshem liturgy written by Rabbi Elazar HaKallir (there are different spellings online if you wish to search, "ha kallir, hakalir, etc.) at around the 6th to 8th centuries CE. It actually very possibly is a poetic way of referring to the more well known angel(s) of rain of the day. If you break down the name, Af, meaning anger and Bri, meaning health, it describes the two general types of ways in which rain can be delivered (assuming in a theistic cause for the weather, of course). At the very least, the name sounds very Hebraic.

The first Jewish angel of rain is probably "Matarel" who is mentioned in the Book of Enoch (circa 2nd cent BCE) and who's etymology is simple. "Matar" means rain and "el" means "god or power." Most angels of that time in Judaism were named as their specific "mission" and ended in "el." Other names for the Jewish angel of rain were things like Matriel, Matariel, and Batarel which are clear derivations. A couple of others, Ridya and Zalbesal I found but I haven't looked up their origins.

Vegetarianism vs Orthodoxy

I know a few people who are ostensibly Orthodox but who are also vegetarian. An interesting combination. Some of these are silly highschool girls who say they are vegetarians but really just don’t like the taste of meat or want to eat less in their speeding race to anorexia. But I also know some serious vegetarians and at least one family who are strictly vegetarian.

In general, being an Orthodox vegetarian Jew doesn't pose too many problems for daily life since there aren’t really any halachot that say a person _must_ eat meat. You don't _have_ to enjoy meat on holidays and Shabbos even though that is a strong custom. And we don't eat the korban Pesach lately, though the fact that we once did indicates a strong contradiction between the values of vegetarians and the implied values of Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy typically sees korbanot as good things and that it is a damn shame that we can’t have them today. Certainly in the Torah, God sees them as good things since he commands them to be given so often.

Ok, but besides the philosophical differences between normative Orthodoxy and vegetarian values, there is a real physical issue with vegetarians in relation to Judaism. Suppose the vegetarian’s ideals were universalized among all Jews. Where would the leather for tefillin come from? Not to mention the parchment for everything from mezzuzzot to Torah scrolls. Where would you get a shofar from? And I won’t even get into suede kippas or rabbit felt black hats. Would kaparot ever be the same? I'm sure non-Orthodox groups would adapt just fine, but what would happen to Orthodoxy?

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Reading on the First Day of Succos

Zechariah 14:

"1 A day of the LORD is coming when your plunder will be divided among you.

2 I will gather all the nations to Jerusalem to fight against it; the city will be captured, the houses ransacked, and the women raped. Half of the city will go into exile, but the rest of the people will not be taken from the city.

3 Then the LORD will go out and fight against those nations, as he fights in the day of battle. 4 On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south. 5 You will flee by my mountain valley, for it will extend to Azel. You will flee as you fled from the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah. Then the LORD my God will come, and all the holy ones with him.

6 On that day there will be no light, no cold or frost. 7 It will be a unique day, without daytime or nighttime—a day known to the LORD. When evening comes, there will be light. 8 On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half to the eastern sea and half to the western sea, in summer and in winter.

9 The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name.

10 The whole land, from Geba to Rimmon, south of Jerusalem, will become like the Arabah. But Jerusalem will be raised up and remain in its place, from the Benjamin Gate to the site of the First Gate, to the Corner Gate, and from the Tower of Hananel to the royal winepresses. 11 It will be inhabited; never again will it be destroyed. Jerusalem will be secure.

12 This is the plague with which the LORD will strike all the nations that fought against Jerusalem: Their flesh will rot while they are still standing on their feet, their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongues will rot in their mouths. 13 On that day men will be stricken by the LORD with great panic. Each man will seize the hand of another, and they will attack each other. 14 Judah too will fight at Jerusalem. The wealth of all the surrounding nations will be collected—great quantities of gold and silver and clothing. 15 A similar plague will strike the horses and mules, the camels and donkeys, and all the animals in those camps.

16 Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, and to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. 17 If any of the peoples of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, they will have no rain. 18 If the Egyptian people do not go up and take part, they will have no rain. The LORD will bring on them the plague he inflicts on the nations that do not go up to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. 19 This will be the punishment of Egypt and the punishment of all the nations that do not go up to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles.

20 On that dayHOLY TO THE LORD will be inscribed on the bells of the horses, and the cooking pots in the LORD's house will be like the sacred bowls in front of the altar. 21 Every pot in Jerusalem and Judah will be holy to the LORD Almighty, and all who come to sacrifice will take some of the pots and cook in them. And on that day there will no longer be a Canaanite in the house of the LORD Almighty."

Seriously, does the Gog/Magog (as named in Ezekiel) eschatology seem like what a good God would do? The "Lord's Day" is a day of terror, suffering, plagues, madness, panic and abject war? Which will then be followed by severe meterological theism and indefinite threats of additional plague?

The great Puppetmaster really knows how to draw people to Him out of love, right?

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Riding Cherubim

"Hashem, Master of Legions, God of Israel, enthroned upon the Cherubim, it is you alone who is God." (Artscroll's Yom Kippur Machzor, Shomeah Tefillah prayer, page 107)

Artscroll has a little star next to this item and indicates that it means that God rests his Shechinah in between the Cherubim on the Ark. That's more or less in line with the Torah's general view on it as well. Alls well, but it could it mean something closer to this? Or this? Don't worry I'll explain later.

"He flies upon His Cherub, and responds to His intimate people." (Artscroll's Tom Kippur Machzor, Aider Y'kar Aili, page 383)

Rides on a cherub? Can this be taken literally? Well, surely not according to Artscroll which has another star by this verse, but could it be something like this? Or like this?

Also take note of verses in Tanach, like 2 Samuel 22:11 and Psalms 18:10 which go "And he rode upon a cherub, and did fly yea, he did fly upon the wings of the wind."

Sure that can also be taken non-literally, but do archeological discoveries suggest otherwise? See here for details.

Even without the oddities of Ezekiel's visions recorded in Ezekiel 10, the archeological evidence surely seems to indicate the the cherubim were not angelic childlike figures in Grecian style, but a more griffin-like figure with a fully animal body, walking on four animal legs, with bird-like wings and perhaps a human head.

Israelite culture and religion did not spring from a vacuum. Its predecessors and contemporaries in Egypt, Phoenicia, Canaan, and Assyria likely had a great degree of influence. Certainly the traditional childlike form is suspicious because remarkably no memory whatsoever in post-Biblical Jewish history is there of what the cherubim looked like.

Friday, October 14, 2005

My Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur this year wasn't as bad as I remember it. There was a point two years ago when it was crawling along somewhere in the middle of musaf and I swore to myself that I was going to tell everyone everything and that this was going to be my last Yom Kippur. It was just torturous for me. Obviously though, I got over it.

Yom Kippur started out slow. Wednesday night I had a full belly and was halfway asleep. In fact, during the Rabbi's speech and appeal, I actually did take a nap. Hurt my neck in the process though and my whole leg had painful pins and needles. Hard shul benches don't make the best beds.

I went to sleep early and woke up around 3 am. I just can't sleep for so long. But then I had some books around to read and I went through those until 7ish. Went back to sleep for a little while and then was woken up at around 8. I was feeling very well refreshed and was dressed, canvas shoes on, and ready in minutes.

Anyway, I was in such a good mood that during my shacharit davening, I don't know why, but I felt more at ease with my Judaism then I have felt in a long time. It wasn't as if I resolved any doubts or came to any firm convictions but all the same it felt so natural. Make of it what you may.

But after that I spent the day imagining the prayers as one long extended metaphor (suffice it to say, it got difficult at some points) and pondering various metaphysical theories of the universe (unfortunately, I didn't progress very far). I'm working on the idea of Judaism being just one way of approaching Existence. Maybe some of the metaphysical assertions aren't on the mark, but there may be a core of truth worth adhering to. I'm fairly sure that there have been many famous Jewish thinkers who didn't believe in every Yom Kippur tefillah that they said, but they said them anyway.

But, in any case, I think that imagining a perfect moral judge examining your deeds and thoughts is a great method for examining your own morality. Maybe you might think yourself justified in acting a certain way, but could you really convince a perfect omniscient superjudge of the same? Makes you think. And in that sense my Yom Kippur was a success.

Oh, and the fast was easy. But that's trivial, remember?

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Why Might God be Hiding?

In modern life, as opposed to the miracle strewn stories of the past, we have no direct contact with anything we can call God. There are some who would disagree with this, though, and claim that they experience a true miracle or conversation with God on a frequent basis, but I certainly haven't and I think most people are like me. What then could be the reason that God, assuming he exists in some form, seems to be in hiding? Why is there no direct evidence for the existence of God?

Well, we could first deconstruct the idea of a "willing" God and suppose that God cannot choose to do anything. He didn't choose to go into hiding, he isn't really a "he" at all. Perhaps by the nature of what he is, he cannot make "himself" apparent to us.

On the flipside of this is the idea that the weakness is not in God, but in mankind. Perhaps God does act in the universe but in so transcendent and so subtle a way that our limited human minds cannot perceive it.

Perhaps it could be that the universe is too sensitive for such obvious interventions and like a soap bubble would be destroyed the moment such actions were tried. This is another argument for a "limited" transcendent God.

Perhaps God is not limited, nor transcendent in that way, but part and parcel of this universe and there are no such things as "miracles" as anything that happens at all is a function of this higher Existence Producer.

Then there are more provincial possibilities, but nonetheless worthy of mentioning:

Perhaps God is punishing humanity and leaving the world to work by itself free from Providential aid.

Perhaps God doesn't care about humanity. Either he left the universe in total or is focusing his attention on a distant part of it, but in either case allowing the world to operate on its own through disinterest.

Perhaps it is some sort of test of faith, or test of human determination, or human creation. Perhaps God needs to be absent to fulfil some mission that was planned for humanity.

Perhaps God doesn't exist as far as this question makes any sense. How can what doesn't exist hide?

I am sure there are also possible answers, but I'm just throwing these ideas out there.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Are You Mochel Me?

This is something which I have never really liked. It's the whole "are you mochel me?" marathon that those fearful of the sensation of burning flesh try to rush in right before Judgement Day. You know they're not sincere because _they_ don't actually think they've done anything wrong and even if they do suspect that they've done something wrong, you know they're only asking you because they fear divine retribution, not because they're actually sorry.

What then does this whole race accomplish? It's of the same vein as the mumbling Ma'ariv and the fast without a cause. The mentality is "I did the duty, now I'm in the clear." If people really believe that God cares so much about their individual conduct, do they think He's fooled by such transparent reasonings? Now I'm feeling a little bit like Isaiah here, but ritual without content is pointless and is at worst offensive.

Asking people for forgiveness could be done the right way with actual intent and with actual care about how one's conduct affects another. Though I do prefer to let bygones be bygones than to resurface old scars between people. But still, it isn't even wrong that such thoughts of personal accounting could be brought about by a certain time of year. And in that sense, Yom Kippur can be a meaningful holiday dealing with individual introspection and measuring oneself up with how one has been and how one wants to be. We can improve ourselves and we can become better people.

Begging the bearer of a divine Sword of Damocles for mercy is how most of Orthodoxy sees Yom Kippur for your fate is sealed on that day, but again, this is not about improving yourself for morality's sake, but for placating an angry overlord to whom prayer is a meager substitute for the full bodied aroma of barbecued animals. I think this is a weak and wrong-headed method for improving behavior. Most people will quickly revert to their previously comfortable levels of moral observance. One really must be honest with oneself and think deeply about what they may have done and how to improve themselves. You can't ask for mercy from yourself, but you can promise yourself to do better.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Why do Jews fast?

I did something today which may seem strange to most people. Yes, I fasted, but that isn't so strange to those on the "inside." What I mean is that while I did fast all the Orthodox Jews that I spoke to today looked on in approval, but when they offered a ride to Mincha and then later Maariv, they couldn't understand and looked in contempt at my lack of enthusiasm. Why would one fast and not daven?

"Hey, Orthoprax, did you daven Mincha yet?"


"Well, we're going to Landau's now. Want a ride?"

"No thanks. I'm good."

"Are you sure? You really should daven. It was just Rosh Hashanah."

"No thanks, really I'm good."

[Squinty-eye look] "Hmmm...suit yourself, but you really should daven."


Thanks for the tip, right? ;-)


Anyway, I got the same basic conversation for Maariv and then the guys came back for the bagels we had bought to break our fasts. So my friend (I'll call him Abe) comes and sits at the table next to me and says "There's really no point in fasting if you're not going to daven."

I say calmly, "Oh, is that right? I thought we fast in order to remind us of what happened on this day in history." Then I added, "Why did you fast today, Abe?"

"Oh, Gedaliah was killed," he responds.

"Who was Gedaliah? Who killed him? Why was he killed?"

"Um, he was the king of Israel, killed by the Babylonians..."

"No, Abe. Wrong."

"Eh, [he gets up to wash] it's more important that a person fasts and davens than to know the reason why."

I respond, getting a little upset, "Knowing why is the _only_ reason why we fast. That's the whole point."

I look around the table at all the frum college students sitting eating bagels and I ask, "Does anyone here know why we fasted today?"

I get little scraps of the story. "Gedaliah was killed by a Jew...he was a governor, not a king..." but nobody seems to have a real grasp of the story. So I start telling it, but as soon as I get into the roles of personalities like the King of Ammon, people are already uninterested. Typical.

Why do Jews fast today, indeed?

Sunday, October 02, 2005

My Views Today

It's a difficult thing in philosophy to keep the same opinions that you began with until the end of the discussion. The topics are often complex and there are lots of different views to consider. Anyway, I first came into the whole philosophical whirlwind as your typical Modern Orthodox teenager. Well, maybe not your typical one, but not so far off from the average either.

I wasn’t limited in my studies, I could take out whatever I wanted from the library, science and Torah were equally valid truths, could not contradict each other and both came from God. Basic Torah U’Maddah in a nutshell. My views as a child consisted of the Big Bang, deep time, theistic evolution, Adam as a real evolved person but with a qualitatively different soul, a global flood, exodus, revelation at Sinai and other miracles were real events, etc.

Then I began discussing politics and theology online with other people. Christians, agnostics, atheists, Muslims, Pagans, you name it. We discussed everything under the sun but the basic underlying theme in all these theological discussions that could not be denied was that I had no way of justifying my own positions over these others. It was easiest with devout Christians and Muslims, though, because they, for the most part, agreed with the same basic legendary history as Jews. But when debating with the doubters of Abrahamic religions, there really was little to stand on and I was left posturing with empty assertions.

I was then lead naturally to skepticism and eventually to the safety of positivism which says that one doesn’t believe in anything unless the evidence leads one to believe it is true. That’s a good hard basis for your beliefs and generally you’ll win the arguments. Debates turn into solid "show me the evidence" and not endless assertions of dogma or even weak apologetics of dogma.

However, after some time as I read more deeply into philosophy with guys like Kant making it clear that metaphysics isn’t something that we can ignore just because we cannot empirically analyze it, and William James showing me that one is justified in making some decision on these questions even though the physical evidence doesn’t suggest one over the other since in many ways it can determine how we think and how we act in life, I began to rethink my adherence to positivism.

Positivism is very limiting. It may tell us what is, but it can easily fail to include other things that are true as well. Sure it can protect us from falsehood, but by its very nature, it can never supply the whole truth. To thus be a student in the pursuit of truth, one should leave the safety of the positivist nest and face the possibility of accepting some falsehood while gaining all the potentiality of more truth. And I should remind myself, there is nothing so bad in being wrong.

So I’ve faced all the common arguments for the existence of God. Sure, there are none which are free from criticism, but still take the cosmological argument for example. The fact remains that we have no good answers for how the universe got to be here. That the universe spontaneously came into existence is absurd, that the universe has existed for "all time" is a linguistic trick and the many universes hypothesis is as groundless as any other metaphysical view. One can be justified in taking the opinion that there was something (some may call it God) that brought the world into being. Perhaps it was a choice made or perhaps it was an inevitable extension of whatever that "thing" is, but I do think that there was something.

But besides from that, the most convincing evidence of there being something beyond our universe is the fact that our world makes so much sense. As Einstein observed, it follows rational principles and it follows certain laws of logic that our minds can comprehend. While atheism doesn’t necessarily imply a randomly beginning universe, many atheists will say so, and I don’t believe that the rational nature of our universe lends to the belief that it has a merely random origin.

One can defend belief in a purely random, unpurposed universe, but where is the evidence for that belief? Humanity exists in an environment which it can comprehend, shape, and explore. We are intelligent, inventive, imaginative, capable of morality, capable of advanced communication, amazingly dexterous, creative: we produce art, music, poetry, fashion etc., and we have an incredible capacity for abstract thinking. That all these characteristics came together at once in our species by accident, is hard to imagine. There are scores of variables necessary for a universe to admit the possibility of the existence of a civilization and for that civilization to develop that can explore and understand the universe that it boggles the mind to say that it happened by accident.

I don’t know if I am arguing for God’s existence or just against the assertion that the universe and our existence is just the result of some cosmic accident.

So does God exist? I still don’t know. I can’t say. But am I an atheist? I don’t think I’m willing to say that I am. An author, Chet Raymo, had said that there are two types of people in the world: skeptics and true believers. I don’t think I’ll ever be a true believer in either theism or atheism, but how can I not be a skeptic? I don’t think the material world is all that there is - things seem way too neat for that to be - but I cannot make any claims for what that something outside of the material world may be. I don’t even know where to start.

Do I think this "thing" cares about human behavior? That it sits in judgement of our thoughts and actions? No. Is there such a thing as a soul and immortality? I don’t think so. Was it this thing which spoke to Moses in the desert and proclaimed a set of laws and regulations for a special kind of human to follow? Sounds kinda silly doesn’t it?

But what Judaism is and has been through the ages (along with other religions) is an attempt to connect with this thing, to understand it, to become a part of it, perhaps. It is a human construct, of course, but with a noble goal. With this view, Judaism isn’t a pointless burden, but it speaks of a determination to join in this goal. Judaism is also the cultural bond which connects all Jews to one another, but it is not just that. Perhaps one day, as in the Rambam’s view, we will be able to commit to an intellectual pursuit of this transcendent thing without the rest of the common rituals, but we must admit that they give us opportunities to set our minds and to reflect on what the world might be. Perhaps we are not a nation of priests, but a nation of philosophers.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Oh, It's a Shaila

This past Saturday morning there had been a car accident on my block. An older guy was driving along at a pretty quick pace, passed out from some previous medical condition (maybe stroke, hypoglycemia, seizure, whatever) and plowed into a row of parked cars right into front of a shul.

My sister immediately called 911 having witnessed the accident from her window. I heard the loud crash and go outside to see what's going on. What I see is the driver slumped over the passenger seat and a good couple dozen guys in black suits and regulation black hats gawking at the scene. There's also a woman on the corner talking excitedly on her cell phone.

I make my way over to the car to see if the driver is alright. I'm not making myself out to be some superhero, I am an EMT so I am trained to deal with these types of situations. One of the men from the shul is a doctor and has the passenger side door open and is analyzing the guy. The driver is face down, has a nice gash on his forehead (he wasn't wearing a seatbelt) has spit out his dentures onto the floor, is breathing with difficulty, coughing up some crap and is entirely unresponsive to my talking to him. This type of mechanism has a high likelihood of involved spinal damage so I held his head (not as well as I would have otherwise since I wasn't wearing gloves and I was avoiding places where he was bleeding) and continued monitoring his vitals.

A couple of minutes later, a Hatzoloh car comes driving up. These must've been guys who just heard the BANG like me since they were still wearing their talaisim (why they couldn't take them off before rolling - that I don't know). So I call out to them, "This guy's gonna need a collar." One calls on the radio for an ambulance and the others puts on gloves and futzes around in his bag for a cervical collar.

The guy comes around and I step back to let the Hatzoloh EMT, who's wearing gloves, take hold of the guy's head. But he doesn't take his head, he starts trying to talk to the patient who's obviously unresponsive and is just holding the collar in his hand. A few moments later a Maimonides ambulance comes by with some experienced techs and when they come around the Hatzoloh guy hands them the collar and they slap it on the guy's neck.

The rest of the incident goes as you might expect. Firefighters come by with their pointy toys eager to tear apart the chassis, but they're waved off by the Maimo guys. The patient is clearly in an altered mental status as he's waking up now and fighting the EMTs, but they eventually get him onto a longboard and a stretcher and off he goes to the ambulance and I have a great excuse for why I'm late to shul.

Anyway, so there's also a couple of cops in uniform checking out the accident and writing their reports. So I talk to one of them and I remarked on their quick response time (must've been ~4 minutes) since they usually take longer. And she said that it was a quiet morning, but she said that she was surprised given all the people watching the scene that the 911 system only got a two calls.

Two calls! That means that the only ones who cared enough to call for help were my sister and the goy down the street. Classic. Isn't it embarrassing when religious Jews are unwilling to call for an ambulance because it's a shaila to do so on Shabbos. A shaila?! There should be no question here. A life is in danger - you don't putz around asking questions if calling for help is permissible.

This type of event is hardly unique, I have a half-dozen similar situations which I know from personal experience. It is very fundamental Halacha that a life in danger overrules almost all other laws, that people don't internalize this and still stall in the midst of an emergency isn't a shaila, it's a shanda.