Thursday, 16 December 2010

What to Write?

This blog is getting dusty again.... I kinda get the feeling that the subject of Jewish skepticism is like beating a dead dog - yes we're skeptical - yes we don't believe B'emuna Shlema - not much else to say. I would like to keep the blog alive but need some inspiration - should I just write about Judaism in general? Dunno. Ideas anyone?

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Funny Video

I thought this was hilarious because in Yeshiva I literally sat through hundreds of these idiotic Divrei Torah. I wish I would've stood up and asked some of these questions to the ignorant bochurim proudly parroting some piece of wisdom found in a "D'var Torah compendium" yet were still unaware that the famous Biblical commentator did not author a commentary called "the Stone of Ezra"

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Excuses Not Questions

Someone emailed me this article from the free weekly Israeli newspaper HaShavua. Dunno if it's true but reflects my personal experiences with Chareidi responses to "questions of emuna."

If someone feels like translating the whole thing by all means, but the gist of it is something like this:

Three Yeshiva drop outs/OTDs (not sure which) were brought to Rav Chaim Kanievsky in an attempt to bring them back to the "straight path". Rav Chaim asked the kids what had caused them to veer from "the derech". They answered that they had certain questions of faith which were bothering them greatly and they proceeded to explain their specific problems. Rav Chaim listened and then simply gave them a beracha.

One of the kids peeped up and asked Rav Chaim why he had not answered their questions. Rav Chaim quoted the Brisker Rav and said "I answer questions not excuses" He turned to the three kids and explained:

"You have decided to be porek ol, since you did not control your yetzer haras, and you found an excuse that you had 'questions', and I don't answer excuses!"  

He gave them another beracha that they would merit teshuva shelema

How fortunate are we to have such amazing Gedolim!!!

Here's the original article in Hebrew, click to enlarge:

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

History is Textual

Was the Zohar written by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in the Tannaitic Era? Were the laws and practices of the "Torah She B'al Peh" in existence before the Tannaitic Literature. Did Jews always believe in an afterlife and a resurrection of the dead? And was God always understood as the unknowable, incorporeal God of Maimonides?

These questions and similar ones about ideas and beliefs in the ancient past can only be measured "scientifically" and historically in one way. Through writing. We simply have no other comparable way of checking what people were actually saying hundreds or thousands of years ago except by reading what writing these people left behind.

Of course this leaves a huge gap in our knowledge of historical time periods when writing was not as widespread as today but again it's all we really have.

So let's address for fun one of our examples. Did Jews always believe in a (meaningful) afterlife? All we can really say for sure is that the ideas of reward and punishment in Heaven and Hell only appear unambiguously in Jewish writings at a relatively late stage of Jewish history. Does the absence of (explicit) mention in earlier texts completely rule out the possibility that Jews always believed in such an afterlife? Not necessarily and it is always possible that by some fluke or "conspiracy" nobody bothered to make a passing mention of certain fundamental concepts of Judaism that feature so frequently in later Talmudic literature. Anything is possible.

But if we are to be historians we have to deal with the written data available to us and the data, by omission, rules out the this assumption. Again our data may be faulty. We might have lost a crucial text here or there which would have painted us a completely different picture. Nevertheless history like other more exact sciences can only deal with "observable" data.

So if you wish to assert that the Zohar was around for hundreds of years (despite no reference to it before the 13th century) or that Jews always keep the 39 melachot of Shabbat (despite no mention of them in the Tanach) I can't prove you wrong. But on the other hand if you assert things like this you're not being a "historian" and if you write that Ancient Hebrews wore tefillin and shook lulavim you're not writing history - just pure speculation - which is, at best based, on faith. 

Have your faith. But don't call it history. 

Monday, 8 November 2010


First I prayed for faith. What else could I pray for? So I prayed and prayed for God to grant me faith in his existence and lo and behold my prayers were not answered. I was naively hurt by the deafening silence to my heartfelt begging. Why would God not grant me something that was a mitzva? I wasn't praying for selfish things like wealth or happiness I was simply asking to be able to fulfill the "constant mitzva" of Anochi Hashem.

I don't pray anymore. Sure I say the words and hum the tunes occasionally but not as supplications. I chant them as beautiful poems and songs.

Does it hurt to pray? I'm not quite sure. Sometimes I'm tempted in times of distress to say a benediction or two but then I realize that it's probably about as efficacious as frantically drawing circles or clapping hands. I think a certain level of maturity is involved when you start dealing with your problems by yourself. Instead of trying to get help from an elusive deity perhaps it's better to accept the challenges of life and deal with them alone. It's hard sometimes to accept that no judge or advocate is out there to set things straight or to catch you when you fall. But it's certainly more realistic.

Perhaps we need to stop taking the soothing drugs of prayer and face the world sober and level-headed even if the challenges of the world seem insurmountable at times.

Of course a L'chaim once in a while never hurts and I guess neither does a prayer here and there....

Monday, 1 November 2010

It's Not About Science

Stating the obvious but...

Young Earth Creationism is not scientific. Not just because it's wrong but also because it's not primarily trying to appeal to science when it claims that the Earth and the universe are not as old as they seem.  Rabbi Slifkin in his recent "disagreements" with Dr. Betech has taken a rather reasonable approach as far as refusing to engage in a scientific debate since the problem is not really about science.

Young Earth Creationists make pseudo-scientific arguments. But this is just a red herring. Ultimately it all boils down to the fact that they respect the authority of scripture and in Judaism the authority of "Daat Torah" and Chazal more than the results of scientific inquiry. In an earlier post about the Documentary Hypothesis I noted a similar phenomenon i.e. that opponents of the Documentary Hypothesis have no problem dipping their feet into both camps - criticizing the literary methods of the DH'ers on one hand (with Cassuto's help) and appealing to the special ineffable, Godly nature of the Pentateuch on the other hand. YEC's often (but not always) engage in similar behavior asserting the authority of scripture and revelation over science but not shying away from "beating the scientists at their own game" by engaging in pseudo-scientific arguments. Ultimately, though, I think we can assert with some confidence that YEC's are not basing their views on "science" as much as they are being motivated by the infallibility of Chazal/Torah.

At the end of the day it's pretty hard for an Orthodox Jew to argue with YEC's  since one has to tie one's hand behind one's back and admit that the Torah is the word of God. The best you can do is show HOW there are methods of interpreting the Torah less literally or appeal to the authority of Rishonim and Achronim who held similar views. But as I've said before either way you look at it, God was a little misleading somewhere - either when he wrote the Torah so obscurely or when he created the world to look like it was older than it was. And how exactly can you or me or anyone determine which of the two sources of truth should be the one to be "taken non-literally"? At best all one can show is that there is a long tradition of people who didn't take the Torah literally or that believing in science over a literal reading of the Torah is not kefira. But I don't think there really is any good way of saying to the YEC's "you are wrong and I am right and this is why!"

Ela Mai? The only real way to be machria the problem once and for all is to demonstrate, by appealing to the simple lack of evidence, that the Torah is not the explicit word of God and is not a source of truth comparable to science. The Torah is, as far as we know, just a book like all other books written by humans -  trying to figure out the answers to life, the universe, and everything.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Learning Rashi On Chumash

I have to wonder about what effects the teaching of Rashi as THE PESHAT of the Chumash, has on Jewish Elementary School children . Even in "Modern Orthodox" day schools Chumash is learned primarily with Rashi. Using what I would call a Midrashic or even "magical" "anti-rationalist" commentary as the basis of basic Chumash classes is perhaps the worst way to bring up Jewish children in the spirit of what I perceive to be the Modern Orthodox ideal  i.e. a rationalist approach to Judaism. Whether such an approach to Judaism is "good" or even possible is not the issue. The point I'm trying to get at is do Modern Orthodox schools defeat their own purposes by teaching Chumash with the traditional commentary of Rashi?

Rashi's commentary is what I would call (anachronistically) a very Chareidi approach to  the Torah. The Biblical world of Rashi is a place full of magic and miracles. At every turn small but numerous deviations from nature occur. Dark magic is a reality. Roads are shrunk to facilitate long journeys. Angels regularly hang out in the houses of the Avot and serve as messengers for them. In short Rashi creates the image of a veritable fantasy world straight out of the pages of the most imaginative fantasy novel. Whether or not Rashi or the original writers of the midrashim he quotes intended these strange additions to the Chumash as literal is irrelevant. A seven year old child imbibes these stories in his/her youth in a serious school class and cannot but help but internalize them to some extent.

If these children continue with their Jewish studies they might stumble upon a more rationalist or "pashtan" approach to the Chumash such as the Rambam, Ibn Ezra, or Rashbam. Nevertheless I feel that most Orthodox Jews today look at the Torah through the whimsical lens of the first Biblical commentary they learned.

Is this really how Modern Orthodox schools want to educate their children and how much of an effect does Rashi have on Orthodox Jewish education and perceptions of what Judaism is?

From a more "secular" perspective (and this applies equally to the way Gemara is taught in Yeshivot) is it a good idea to teach children that a given text doesn't really mean what it says?  Is this the best way to educate children, by instructing them to not actually read the Chumash but to understand it through someone else's ideas? Of course all of Rabbinic Judaism suffers somewhat from this problem but I can't help but think that Rashi takes it to a farther level than the real pashtanim.

And Now For Something Completely Different: I just want to say that it drives me absolutely insane when people call the Ibn Ezra the Even Ezra (like the "Stone of Ezra"). I know that Jews in their dialect of Arabic probably didn't pronounce it exactly like "Ibn" and perhaps said it more like "Aven" but it's quite clear that a lot of people throwing the name "Even" around are just ignorant and think it's a fancy name for a commentary like " Or Hachayim" or "Kli Yakar".

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The Akeda

Theologically its problematic but only if you believe in an unchanging omniscient God.

The story is actually very clear. God want to test Avraham. He wants to find out if he is really dedicated to him. God presumably doesn't want the sacrifice just the willingness to do it. After the whole affair God says "NOW, I know that you fear God and you did not withhold your one son from me" It's only NOW that God knows the extent to which Avraham is willing to follow his commands clearly implying that before this it wasn't clear.

YHWH in this story is not omniscient. He doesn't know what the outcome of the trial will be if he did it wouldn't be a test would it? I understand completely that the classical commentators have dealt with this pressing issue but the fact remains that the story itself makes it clear that it was a "test" and that God learned something about Avraham from this test.

The God of the Pentateuch is not all knowing and unchanging. Many a time he is about to do something and (destroy Sedom, kill Bnei Yisrael in the midbar etc.) until a patriarch or prophet intervenes and makes an appeal.

The God of the Pentateuch is more of a celestial father than an invisible cosmic force. He has feelings and rages he can be appeased or angered. He can have mercy and control his anger. In short he's the kinda guy you can really relate to. He's like us just bigger, smarter and a great guy to have on your good side (but if you piss him off or happen to be a Canaanite hide!!!)

Who would you rather pray to? A celestial force which almost automatically bestows blessings on man like some sort of scientific law or like some sort of a computer, completely indifferent to anything and devoid of all feeling or personality. Or a God who loves, hates, cries, saves, and cares.

If I believed I would definitely pray to the latter. And let's be honest there is know logical reason to go with cosmic invisible force over cosmic invisible skyfather sitting on a big throne of clouds surrounded by winged angels. If you're gonna be "illogical" and go with religion I would recommend worshiping the God who is like us.

Monday, 18 October 2010

A Conversation

(Real Abridged Conversation)

Shilton: Do you believe in the reliability of tradition for emotional or logical reasons?
Emuna: Logical I just disagree with your definition of logic
Shilton: Oh Really? How? Do you agree that we make certain axiomatic assumptions in logic?
Emuna: Yes.
Shilton: In other words we don't know anything is really true but we still make basic starting assumptions
Emuna: Yes.
Shilton: And How do we decide which axioms to assume? Surely it's the ones that correspond with our experience
Emuna: Okay... let's say
Shilton: Can you support your assumption that the Jewish tradition is a reliable source of truth by your experience? Have you ever seen empirically or by some other form of evidence that traditions are reliable?
Emuna: Well that's impossible I'd have to go all the way back to Sinai to actually see it.
Shilton: Argument from consequences... just 'cuz there is perhaps no way of meeting my demands of evidence doesn't make your position any better.
Emuna: No you see I disagree with your basic assertion that assumptions should correspond with observation
Shilton: So according to your method I could assert that this computer is really a flying pig. I've never observed it or seen any empirical evidence but Hell, you say we don't need any.
Emuna: Erm...

Thursday, 14 October 2010

What I Want

I like Judaism I just don't like it interfering with intellectual activities.

As a truth system, a means of salvation, or a worldview Judaism (and all religions) fail terribly. They just aren't true from a logical standpoint. If you have faith then good for you but unfortunately (or fortunately) for me when it comes to Judaism I have lost my faith. I no longer believe in the Jewish God or the divinity of his Torah.

Nevertheless I like Judaism in an emotional sense. I cannot, nor would I want to, escape the emotional hold Judaism has on my life. The rituals speak to me in a "national" sense, practices and prayers which are part of my heritage continue to give me emotional satisfaction. On Yom Kippur I get goosebumps during Netane Tokef when we cry about our unstable and transient existences, on Pesach I get shivers during the Kos Eliyahu when we incant "Pour out your wrath on the nations ... because they have consumed Yaakov" and think about the Jews who were (and still are) killed for being Jewish. Even the meaningless rituals like the shofar and the lulav somehow make me feel connected to my people who were, are and will be. I want to get out on the streets and scream with pride " I am a Jew!" but how can I shout that out sincerely if I don't maintain a cursory respect for the traditions which have so deeply affected and shaped the Jewish people.

But I want choice. I want to choose to keep Shabbat. I want to choose to light candles on Chanukkah to commemorate a thousand year old victory and a mythical but beautiful miracle. I don't want a God or a community to demand observance I want to have freedom to be a Jew as I see fit.

I don't want people to take the rituals too seriously. I don't want people expending hundreds of dollars on a "mehudar" etrog when a much cheaper one will do. I don't want people starving themselves because they forgot to do havdala or because they have not yet said Shacharit. I want Jewish observance in the same way Americans observe Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July. You keep the "holy days" and "rituals" (hotdogs, fireworks, turkey) but you don't kill yourself to make sacrifices if things aren't working out.

I want the good without the bad the beauty and depth of keeping age old practices, without the self-sacrifice and terrible inconvenience mandated by a dogmatic religion.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010


(No chiddush... just a place to vent )

There were those few years where I was terrified. I was scared to death that I was doing everything wrong and I was expending countless hours in the service of to the wrong God (assuming there really was one). I sat for hours reading books looking for "the answer" and for the magical solution which would allay my doubts and jettison me back into religious bliss. The years went by and I learned a lot about Judaism, much more than I would have known had I confined my reading to the strict Talmudic curriculum mandated by my Rabbis, but alas no answer became apparent and I was simply distraught. I prayed and cried during my tefilot. I prayed for belief, belief in an afterlife, belief in an existence with cosmic significance, belief in a God who I could lean on in times of distress and thank in times of joy. I looked around at the blind believers and burned with envy at their good fortune.

I thought a lot. I weighed arguments in my head building up grotesque theories and solutions and knocking them down one by one at a dizzying pace. Kuzari "proof", Torah codes and gematriot, kiruv seminars, I did them all. I remember the joy at discovering or reading a new "idea" and the distress every time I refuted it to the satisfaction of my logic but not my heart.

The years passed and I just stopped thinking about these issues. I got on with my Orthodox life more or less indifferently always stopping once in a while to shed a tear on Yom Kippur or other significant occasions. Unfortunately because I decided to "switch off my brain" I ended up making certain choices inspired by my old religious convictions which still affect my life today. But that's another story...

And then one night I stood outside in the early morning and for the hell of it decided to turn my thoughts back to Judaism. And I realized that I didn't care anymore, the deep convictions I had once had no longer haunted me and I finally said to myself "Shilton, what was was, you are free." And I stopped worrying and praying for the religion of my childhood and rejoiced in my new intellectual freedom. And all the regret and sadness and yearning for a faith which was beyond my grasp dissipated just like that and I now looked at those same blind believers with quiet pride that I had not just followed the flock but had been clever enough (or maybe just "lucky" enough) to think outside of the confines of Orthodoxy.

Very quickly this momentary happiness was shattered by the realization that I was Orthoprax and I began to wonder if it wasn't time to leave....

Monday, 11 October 2010


The creative juices are running low and I'm very busy at the moment.

Would anyone like to keep this blog interesting by contributing guest posts about anything related to Judaism or religious skepticism? Maybe this can become collaborative. This blog was too much fun to just abandon just like that ;-)

If you're interested just send me an email at

Sunday, 3 October 2010

The Line of Literalism

Food for thought....

So you're a good Modern Orthodox Jew. You've read Rabbi Slifkin and other relatively progressive Orthodox books and you know that a 6 day creation and a world wide deluge is some sort of allegory - not to be taken literally - and definitely not a contradiction to science - because Genesis is not teaching us science. Period.

So you read through Bereishit you sail through Noach - all the time laughing at those dumb Charedim who are so backward and intransigent - unable to resolve the paltry difficulties of reading Genesis with scientific knowledge. Eventually you get to parshat Lech Lecha. Wait a sec? Is this also an allegory? After all Avraham is connected to Noach and even to Adam HaRishon genealogically. At no point is there a red flag that says "oy! time to start taking things literally again, we've left metaphor land and are on to the real historical, national narrative!" No break in the narrative at all.Is Avraham an allegory? Is Yitzchak not science or history but a "spiritual message"? What if we go a little further? Ma'amad Har Sinai! Is that not to be taken literally? The people who stood at Har Sinai are also genealogically linked to characters in "metaphorical narratives"....

True there isn't the same type of scientific evidence against the Avot and Exodus as there is against a literal Genesis but nevertheless one has to ask - when does the Torah leave the world of allegories and "spiritual truths" and enter the world of real historical facts? Where is the line dividing literalism from symbolism and Monotheistic "mashology"? Why is this line so invisible? An untrained eye reading Genesis will miss the line completely. And how do family trees seem to move so easily from the one side of the line to the other without the slightest break or interruption....

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

God and Obi Wan Kenobi

Luke: Why didn't you tell me? You told me Vader betrayed and murdered my father.
Obi Wan: Your father was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force. He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader. When that happened, the good man who was your father was destroyed. So what I told you was true... from a certain point of view.
Luke: (incredulous) A certain point of view?
Obi Wan: Luke, you're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.
Now there are basically two approaches one can take to this rather new-agey conversation.

1. Obi Wan has a strange habit of saying things in the most roundabout way as possible.Instead of saying "Oh you're dad's the arch villain" he decided to say "The arch villain killed your daddy". Luke was just dumb for not getting it.
2. Obi Wan lied and is covering it up.

Sooooo what does this have to do with God, the Torah and Israel?

Well if you take the whole Oral Torah thing really literally as the original intent of the text, (instead of a more a historical approach where the OT is a reinterpretation of the original intent of the text)  you're going to end up with a God who talks a lot like Obi Wan Kenobi. i.e saying the opposite of what he really means. I figure the conversation between Moshe and God went something like this.
Moshe: Why didn't you tell me? You told me that we're supposed to eat Matza for seven days! Now you're telling me it's only really one??? You told me to lash people 40 times now you drop one for the hell of it???
God: What I told you was true... from a certain point of view.
Luke: (incredulous) A certain point of view?
God: Moshe, you're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.
Moshe:  Erm... what point of view would that be...  ?

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Random Sukkot Thoughts

  • Maybe I just have a weird sense of humor but I thought it was pretty funny watching people struggling with lulav, etrog, and siddur during hoshanot. The less yeshivish folks just held the lulav and etrog in one hand and the siddur in the other while the more black hat types were very makpid to hold lulav in right, etrog in left, and somehow manage to balance a siddur on their outstretched arms.
  • Perusing an Artscroll Yomtov halacha book (*shudder*) and I noticed something interesting. When it comes to smoking on YomTov Artscroll mentions that part of the reason smoking may have been permitted back in the day on Yom Tov was because it was שווה לכל נפש (a luxury or habit which all people need/do/want) whereas nowadays most people don't smoke so perhaps the halacha nowadays would forbid smoking. But when it came to showering it just quoted a Mishna Berura (or some old source) which prohibited heating up water to bathe one's whole body because bathing everyday is not שווה לכל נפש Now maybe I'm just pampered but I think most people nowadays consider it normal to bathe daily so I'm not quite sure why Artscroll doesn't consider the possibility that nowadays daily bathing is considered שווה לכל נפש.

The possibilities:
1.Many Orthodox Jews still have 19th century hygiene habits. (*double shudder*)

2. You can only take changing circumstances into account halachically if it makes things stricter. But making things easier based on changing circumstances is evil Reform/Conservative/Liberal "innovation".

Or maybe I just missed something or am unfamiliar with the halachot. Very possible.

  • Kohelet is such an Un-Orthodox Book. I mean how much more skeptical can you get than this:

יח  אָמַרְתִּי אֲנִי, בְּלִבִּי--עַל-דִּבְרַת בְּנֵי הָאָדָם, לְבָרָם הָאֱלֹהִים; וְלִרְאוֹת, שְׁהֶם-בְּהֵמָה הֵמָּה לָהֶם. 18 I said in my heart: 'It is because of the sons of men, that God may sift them, and that they may see that they themselves are but as beasts.'
יט  כִּי מִקְרֶה בְנֵי-הָאָדָם וּמִקְרֶה הַבְּהֵמָה, וּמִקְרֶה אֶחָד לָהֶם--כְּמוֹת זֶה כֵּן מוֹת זֶה, וְרוּחַ אֶחָד לַכֹּל; וּמוֹתַר הָאָדָם מִן-הַבְּהֵמָה אָיִן, כִּי הַכֹּל הָבֶל. 19 For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them; as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that man hath no pre-eminence above a beast; for all is vanity.
כ  הַכֹּל הוֹלֵךְ, אֶל-מָקוֹם אֶחָד; הַכֹּל הָיָה מִן-הֶעָפָר, וְהַכֹּל שָׁב אֶל-הֶעָפָר. 20 All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all return to dust.
כא  מִי יוֹדֵעַ, רוּחַ בְּנֵי הָאָדָם--הָעֹלָה הִיא, לְמָעְלָה; וְרוּחַ, הַבְּהֵמָה--הַיֹּרֶדֶת הִיא, לְמַטָּה לָאָרֶץ. 21 Who knoweth the spirit of man whether it goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast whether it goeth downward to the earth?

Forget Evolution calling men monkeys! Kohelet calls man an animal! And says "they all end up the same"! And what is this "who knoweth" stuff about man's spirit going up to heaven!? Doesn't poor distraught Kohelet know about Olam HaBa!? If it weren't for the whole Sof Davar thing Kohelet could not have made it into the canon.

An Orthodox approach would be: A Rabbi once explained to me that Kohelet is sort of a parody of what man is like without religion. Basically the author made up this basically irreligious guy Kohelet and shows how depressed he is. The moral of the story is something akin to "Be Jewish or you'll be sad like Kohelet!" Very interesting idea. Kinda sounds like modern Orthodox propaganda about how awful it is to be not-frum/OTD.


Wednesday, 22 September 2010

A Thought About Weird Beliefs

Once upon a time in my naiver days I listened to a Rabbi fulminate about how dumb Muslims were for believing that Mohammed road to heaven on a peacock-donkey something monstrosity. And I unfortunately found that amusing and laughed. I regret that laugh nowadays because I opened up my eyes eventually and realized that we Jews also look like a bunch of idiots to outside observers - talking about various miracles, talking donkeys, and other fun Rashi stories. The point is supernaturalism shouldn't really have degrees of weirdness - Mohammed going to heaven ain't any more weird than God freezing the sun in place for Yehoshua. Both are equally scientifically impossible.

At the end of the day it seems to boil down to "well my book says God froze the sun but nothing about Mohammed's celestial adventures so therefore my supernatural belief is true and yours is silly and laughable." The Muslims obviously invert the same exact argument.

So if you believe - at least have the intellectual honesty to laugh at all weird beliefs consistently (I guess with the knowledge that your belief in talking donkeys is inherently laughable but nevertheless true due to a Biblical revelation.) Or better yet don't laugh at all. 

I was thinking about all of this because of the booming lemon business around this time of year. As Mis-nagid once put it (paraphrase, can't find original quote) "Silly Indians having raindances! Don't they know you're supposed to bring rain with a palm frond and a lemon!" 
I wonder how the average Orthodox Jew would explain Lulav and Etrog to a non-Jew. "Um .. well you see.. it's not superstition or anything... it just .. um ... a way to ... um bring the rain in Israel. Plus the Torah says so!"
 The same Orthodox Jew would probably go two seconds later  and laugh at the dumb Christians eating Christ's body and blood as s/he munches on a sandwich which was prepared according to Ancient Near Eastern purity precepts.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Oh No!!! Innovation!!!

Yup those Conservative Jews are at it again having the audacity to print "innovative" machzorim. Though some of the changes they apparently make are a little bit unnecessary IMHO (like a special Yizkor prayer for an abusive parent ??? though i dunno maybe there was big demand) I hardly see what the big deal is. As far as I can tell none of the pernicious changes are really halachically problematic (unless you think prayer is set in stone and can never be changed for whatever reason whatsoever on pain of death)

This is what R' Marlyles thinks: 
One of the things that has kept Judaism alive during this long Diaspora is our commitment to tradition. That means that we do not change things based on the prevailing winds of the moment. 

SH: I'll get to that in a moment.

Yes, there is such a thing as Hora’as Shah which can bring innovative change. 

SH: What? How can a Hora'as Shaah bring (presumably permanent) innovative change? It's supposed to be a temporary measure it's supposed to disappear as soon as the situation changes.

But change was sparingly implemented over time by religious leaders of immense knowledge and only in circumstances when it became apparent that the very existence of Judaism was at stake.It was never about submitting to a spirit of the time that did not have existential overtones.

SH: Seriously? Do you think Judaism isn't at stake nowadays? By Orthodox standards we're in the most irreligious period in our history.Time to make concessions to some of those "misguided Jews" out there.

So Judaism never has historically "changed things to go with the wind of the moment"? Judaism has never made innovations?
  • Was it not innovation every time a Rabbi over the last two thousand years made a takkana ? (and no not every takkana was made by a universally recognized Beit Din) Or does that word "innovation" only mean "lenient innovation"?
  • Was it not going with the spirit of the times when Aristotlean and Neoplatonic philosophy was adopted in certain places during the Middle Ages as Jewish Theology?
  • Was Rabbenu Gershom's innovation to have only monogamous marriages not going with the spirit of the times? 
  • Was translating the Torah into other languages besides the "divinely inspired Targum of Onkelos"  not innovation. Was doing away with translating every Torah verse in shul as in Mishnaic times not innovation? 
  • Was it not innovation when a new canonical work sprung into the Jewish world? - the Zohar. Was it not innovation when new Kabbalistic practices, prayers, and "kavvanot" were added to the liturgy and daily practice (kapparot, tashlich, tikkun chatzot, tikkun leil, Kabbalat Shabbat, etc.)
  • I guess the Chassidim who comprised a huge amount of pre-war European Jewry were "not really Jewish" because they innovated a lot and even were (and still are) lenient about prayer times.
  • Hell, let's go further back: were writing and canonizing the Mishna and Gemara not innovations? Was canonizing the 24 books of the Tanach including much disputed ones like Kohelet and Yechezkel not innovation? (I guess people with Ruach Hakodesh can make innovations but not us mere mortals)
  •  Was new ways of interpreting the Torah not innovation? Was the expansion from 7 exegetical rules to 13 to 32 not innovation?  Was Rabbi Akiva who's lectures supposedly stumped even Moshe Rabbenu (through time travel of course) an innovator?
  • Was the Babylonian Holiday of Simchat Torah which was subsequently accepted by all of Jewry not innovation? 
  •  Was Ezra's changing of the Torah script from Ivrit to Ashurit (or restoration according Chareidim) not innovation?
And the list goes on.......

I hardly think most of the above innovations were absolutely vital for the survival of the Jewish people.

Judaism like every other religion changes. There have always been innovators (and there have also always been reactionaries.) Orthodoxy likes to pretend otherwise. But the history speaks for itself. Which is why Jewish History is such a little known topic in most Orthodox minds.

Orthodoxy nowadays is in many ways similar to the people who railed against the Rambam, the people who mouthed off at the mekubalim, and the people who bashed the Besht.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Poor Empedocles

I guess the meritorious practice of quoting people doesn't apply to goyim. The reason there has been no Geula yet (besides too many women wearing short tight skirts) must be because no one will give poor Empedocles some credit!

Today a Rabbi gave a stupid drasha  and waxed eloquently about about the four elements fire, water,  air, and earth. Now I don't really object to that classification of the elements perse (despite the fact that it is obviously obsolete) but what reaaally bugs me is when Rabbis and people say "Judaism says that there are 4 elements etc." or the "Torah considers matter of consisting of four elements etc." NO! NO! NO!

The four elements are a completely non-Jewish concept. They are never mentioned anywhere in the Tanach (and I'm not sure if it's even in the Gemara but I could be wrong) and only snuck into Jewish literature from - yeah you guessed it the Greeks. In the time period when the Rabbis were writing it was considered established "science" that all matter consisted of those four elements. This was a completely Greek idea which was thought up by the Greek philosopher Empedocles HUNDREDS OF YEARS before the Mishna or Gemara were written. (Though Enuma Elish, apparently, does mention sea, earth, sky and wind but since the Torah was OBVIOUSLY not influenced by Baylonian mythology not really relevant)  Furthermore Empedocles and other scholars using the idea took it very literally and considered water, air, fire, and earth the basic elementary materials of matter. (So none of this junk about "the four elements are mystical and spiritual") Nowadays we know Empedocles was wrong (open a chemistry book) and the prevailing atomic theory is more like the theory of Democritus.

So calling the four elements a "Jewish" or "Torah" idea is but another example of modern (modern only in the sense of happening to live in the modern era) Rabbis learning Gemara and Rishonim completely out of historical context (like Artscroll's Gemara notes) and concluding that Greek science which they read in the some Jewish text is in fact "Jewish science".

When will they ever learn....

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Does God Write Ineffable Books or Do Germans Make Bad Literary Critics? (Orthodox Approaches to the Documentary Hypothesis)

The way I see it there are two types of criticisms of The Documentary Hypothesis and Biblical criticism in general.(I'm not discussing HERE whether the arguments are valid or not)

1.Methodological Criticism

The one is a criticism of the basic methodology which is to say that the theory behind the Documentary Hypothesis is just wrong. Either it's because they misinterpret the evidence, or it's because their evidence is non-existent in the first place etc. etc. This was the approach of Umberto Cassuto, who though no believer in Orthodox TMS, criticized the methodology and assumptions underlying the specifics of the Graf-Wellhausen Hypothesis. The logical implication of this approach is that the DH methodology is complete rubbish (or partially rubbish) and can NEVER be applied to literature Biblical or otherwise.

This above approach is somewhat difficult because according to this "school", the question of DH or not is not (theoretically) one of religion vs. atheism or Right Wing Religion vs. Left Wing Religion. Rather the question is purely one of literary criticism and is really one of bad literary criticism vs. good literary criticism. However we find that the fault line between the advocates of unified authorship and the advocates of single authorship almost invariably falls between Orthodox Jews and Right Wing Christians on the ones side and everyone else on the other which leads one to suspect that maybe this is a religious issue after all.

2. Epistemological Criticism

The other approach used to reject the DH is that the methodology is certainly sound but has unfortunately been misapplied. In other words were the Torah a natural man-made text then the advocates of the DH would be right. However the Torah is supernatural, a book revealed by God to Moshe and cannot be dissected with the same tools used on human works of literature. Mordechai Breur tried to turn this approach into an entire new methodology while most apologists merely comment (usually with little further explanation) that God cannot be expected to write books in the same way as man and his "writing style" is just as unknowable as him.

This harks back to the (primarily Christian) Medieval Averroist idea of the double truth. The double truth asserts in one way or another that naturalism and science (in those days Aristotleanism) definitively tell us one thing about God and the universe (e.g. that the universe is coeternal with God). In that respect a naturalistic methodology is correct. However there is another source of truth i.e. revelation or faith that gives us another view of the world. In other words one "knows" one thing as a philosopher and another as a man/woman of faith. In the case of the DH, as literary critics the DH'ers are correct, but we as Orthodox Jews know through supernatural revelation that the normal rules of literary analysis do not apply here because men didn't write this book the supernatural God did. אין כל חדש תחת השמש  

(One little problem with this methodology BTW is that it can easily be modified to reject evolution or old Earth. If literary critics are right according to "science" and wrong according to revelation then why can't scientists be right according to science and wrong according to revelation/)

3. Now What?

I just want to end by making a point about the state of modern Orthodox apologetics about this critical issue. It seems to me that some Orthodox apologists kind of want to keep their feet in both camps. People who criticize the methodology of the DH often at the same time criticize the very use of methodological naturalism on the Torah. (e.g. Dovid Gottlieb here bringing both views ) 

Any Orthodox person who goes solely with the second approach really should admit that the DH'ers were right from a  literary point of view and should STOP being so disparaging of Bible Criticism. Rejecting the DH'ers methodologically AND epistemologically is completely superfluous. I suppose it's theoretically possible that the DH'ers are wrong on two counts but it looks a bit fishy when a lot of people adopts two arguments with nothing in common except the result which just happens to be a result which is a required belief of an Orthodox Jew.

What do you think?

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Will The Internet Affect Orthodoxy?

I'm not really sure.

I imagine that a large part of people's ability to cling onto strange or untenable beliefs is due to lack of information. Back in the day it was far more unlikely for an average Orthodox person to even hear about the Documentary Hypothesis or Babylonian myths etc. unless s/he was one avid reader or had a particular interest in potentially controversial fields.

Nowadays with the information explosion of the twenty first century things are a lot more accessible. An unwitting internet surfer can get caught in a chain of links easily leading to "heretical" material. (Many people stumble upon this blog by googling such innocuous things as "Ktiva V'Chatima Tova" or "Rambam" as well as some really strange irrelevant things like "narcissistic personality disorder")   As I overheard a Kollel guy once say "You watch youtube! But how? You could click on link which leads to another link which might make you watch something assur chas v'shalom!" Chareidim aren't just afraid of the prostkeit on the internet, they're afraid of the information.

But let's be honest how much of a difference will availability make. Firstly I imagine most people Jewish and not are spending most of their internet time Facebooking and Twittering not on Wikipedia. Most people couldn't be bothered by the intricacies of theology, science, history or even current events. So I think it's very possible that the availability of information will hardly be utilized except by the handful of inquisitive souls out there. I'm sure some people might stumble upon heresy, but I doubt most would be interested enough to even read a page without tweets or status updates (or Youtube videos of sneezing pandas)

Secondly many Orthodox Jews still have the religious gag reflex - where they instinctively flee from heretical ideas or alternatively automatically dismiss anything not written by a Rabbi. "Oh an article about the Bible looks interesting. Oh wait! It's written by a guy with a goyishe name and uses the word Pentateuch must be rubbish!" *click exit*  Many Orthodox Jews learn that there are two types of information out there correct ideas (things which are in harmony with Orthodoxy) and incorrect ideas (things which are not in harmony with Orthodoxy)  and will soon gain an instinct to determine the difference between the two and learn to throw the former into the mental dust bin. The religious gag reflex if properly functioning can make people impervious to any perceived assualts on their faith. (My "downfall" I assume was an under-developed religious gag reflex)

The above is of course pure speculation as I hardly can expect to fully understand the psychology of the Jew on the street but that's my tentative thoughts on the matter.

Although I don't think one can deny that the internet is corrupting more people with "outside" ideas than libraries ever did, I have to wonder if it will ever be able to effect a revolution in Orthodox Jewish thought.

Monday, 13 September 2010


Once upon a time in Yeshiva I shared with a fellow bochur an Avraham Ben HaRambam that said that the Rabbis in the Gemara should not be taken literally (horrors!) I was subsequently reported for this inappropriate behavior. When I appealed to the authority of the Rambam and his son the Rosh Yeshiva said to me rather frankly "A Yeshiva is not a place to find philosophical truth, it is a place to cultivate Yiros Hashem (fear of God). What you're doing although it may be true has the possibility of shterring (ruining) people's Yiros Hashem."

I can't say that all Rabbis agree with this but that basically sums up the whole Chareidi position which wants to forget (or rewrite) Jewish History, Jewish Philosophy and anything besides the Babylonian Talmud.  Truth is perhaps not always their primary goal.

It also would sure explain why Kiruv movements bend the truth (perhaps even intentionally) The truth is not as important as fearing God, THAT is what matters and if you can get someone to fear God and keep his Torah then the ends justify the means. Whether you were honest or not doesn't quite matter because at the end of the day this person who you were mekarev through dishonest methods is now going to Gan Eden. S/he will in the Oilam HaEmes (the "true" world) thank you for your dishonest tactics.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

5 Steps To A Guaranteed Ketiva V'Chatima Tova!

Warning: this is highly irreverent and mocks Jewish traditions from time immemorial and probably is not the best thing to be writing before Rosh HaShana and probably isn't very funny. Don't read this if those kind of things offend you (and I ask for your forgiveness in advance.) Thank you! Shana Tova!

It's hard getting forgiven by the aybershte. I mean he is fairly demanding, and how exactly can we INSURE that he doesn't strike us with lightning next year!? Luckily for us Jews we have some sure fire ways of tipping the scales of divine judgment. Let's take a look.

1. Crying. 

Apparently your prayers get extra points if you turn on the water works. But let's be honest you (the proste minuval that you are) just aren't stirred up enough to get those tears flowing. Luckily there's an easy solution. Fake it! That's right. The angels collecting your tears don't know if you're sincere or not so might as well give 'em something. Pinch yourself if you have to. Loud sobs are also a great idea - nothing says "I'm sorry, God" like pissing off the whole congregation with obnoxious loud yelps and making constipated faces. And if you're a chazzan - as a shaliach tzibbur you have an EXTRA obligation to sob in the middle of prayers (but just a word of advice even the angels aren't gonna fall for it if you continue where you left off before the sob without the slightest crack in your voice. Cummon make it a little bit convincing)

2. Simanim

Simanim aren't just tasty they're magical! That's right. If you eat some honey then the your gezeira for a sweet new year becomes guaranteed! (Take that you "rationalists"!) So be sure to scarf down as many simanim as possible! More simanim = more chances that you cast an effective spell. (A Kosher Torah spell BTW not a goyishe Harry Potter kishuf spell) Learn from the sefardim! Gather up animals and vegetables from all corners of the earth! And be SURE to stay away from nuts! The Gematria of the Hebrew word for nut - egoz is ALMOST the same gematria as sin - chet. And don't even dare listen to those scoffers who say that it's nuts who come up with these gematriot in the first place - they're just a buncha minuvalim who are also skeptical of Bible Codes and other Ohr Sameach approved word games. Are you really gonna listen to idiots like that?

3. Feed the Fish

You got all these sins sticking on to you where you gonna throw 'em? (Sins are REAL spiritual/metaphysical/immaterial/impure particles sticking to our neshamos so STOP rolling you eyes. If we could take an Xray of your neshama it would probably look like the lungs of a Lakewood Yeshiva Buchur) In the times of the Beit HaMikdash we had a scapegoat who got loaded with all our sins and was kicked off a mountain. Nebach we no longer have the ability to kill large amounts of animals ritually so we have to do the next best thing... KILL THE FISH. First make sure to empty out all your pockets to get all those nasty sins into the water and while you're at it try to coerce your millions of zera levatala demons (yeah don't pretend you haven't already spawned an army of those buggers) to join the fish also. THEN watch the fish gobble up you invisible sins. THEN swoop in and deal those fish a fatal blow with moldy challa crumbs. BOOM fish and sins gone.

4. Go To The Mikva

Yeah, yeah, you don't want to run around naked in front of a buncha hairy old men and fat chassidim but that's just because you have "Western sensibilities" and hopefully the waters of the holy mikva will manage to get rid of those also. Just be sure to to let your feet touch the ground! Everyone knows that the unholiness surrounding your spiritual neshama will not dissipate unless every inch of your body is touched by rain water warmed by human bodies and afloat with human hair. (Oh and those folks peeking at you are upright menschen and respected members of the community! So stop talking loshon horo about them right before Rosh HaShana!)

5.  Say Hatarat Nedarim

Wouldn't want you going into Rosh HaShana with some unfulfilled oaths. What you haven't made any oaths? Well too bad! Say it anyway! In fact say it twice for being such a smart allack. It's in the siddur for God's sake, you can't just skip it!

With this arsenal you're guaranteed a perfect year! In fact I'll prove it: My friend once did all of these things and he didn't die the next year AND he got a raise at work! What more evidence do you need?

Ktiva V'Chatima Tova!

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

My Rant About Kiruv Organizations

Kiruv organizations are EEEEEVIL! (Prepare for a rant!)

Ok not quite evil .I'm sure they're a little somewhere under Erev Rosh HaShana Selichot and fake crying on Yom Kippur but definitely up there with the top 10 evils of Orthodoxy. (hey that can be my next post!)

Listen! If you want to show someone how great a Shabbat can be with an awesome cholent and some stirring zemirot then by all means. Because all of that isn't a lie. Shabbat CAN be "uplifting" being Jewish CAN be fun. Some people even enjoy being Chareidi and to that I say good for you! and if a kiruv organization sets up a situation where non-affiliated Jews can experience some of these things and perhaps get in touch with their heritage - then even better!!!

But lying!!!!??? The Kuzari "Proof"??? The "Chazal knew some science"??? The Torah Codes??? Cummon!!! I dunno if Aish HaTorah, Ohr Sameach and their wacky lecturers know they're full of it or not (Gottlieb seems to think he's a genius, or should I define "thinking you're a genius" with a cute acronym TYAG and say Gottlieb = TYAG) but SOMEONE has got to tell 'em to shut it. Not just frum skeptics should be up in arms against this but even Ma'aminim Bnei Ma'aminim have to say "hey guys let's keep the recruiting Kosher"

The pseudo-proofs of Judaism not only are complete logical crap but also can ruin people down the rode. If you sign up for Judaism because of an Aish HaTorah Discovery Seminar then it won't take much for you to "open up you eyes" and regret 10 kids later what you've done. I dunno how many people they hook with their "scientific" mumbo jumbo but ANYONE convinced by that stuff is being terribly MANIPULATED.

Talking about manipulation, Kiruv Organizations should not be using marketing strategies. Sure if you're selling a vacuum it's bad marketing to mention that it's gonna die a day or so after the warranty - but this is something worse than a vacuum these are PEOPLE's lives. What do I mean by marketing strategy? Well, if a a non-frum girl goes and ask an Aish Hatorah guy what the status of woman is in Judaism he's not gonna whip out those delightfully backwards Gemarot which say tons of sexist things. Nope! Not even going to mention that a woman is considered in the Gemara too "crafty" to learn Torah, and too unreliable to be a witness. Kiruv Organizations sugar coat all the rough bits of Judaism and shelter their adherents from them until waaaay too late. THAT is pure manipulation - taking advantage of someone's ignorance about Judaism in order to only present the "fun" bits.

Be honest! I want every Kiruv Organization to be HONEST. If someones ask the Rabbi "Hey Rabbi what does the Gemara say about non-Jews" I want the Rabbi to say first "It thinks they're a bunch of donkeys with the emissions of horses" and only THEN make the excuses. I want the Rabbi to read all the demonology bits and read some choice Biblical passages about stoning and genocide. Go ahead! Present all the nice bits too BUT make sure to honestly present the good and the bad EQUALLY. If you lose "souls" 'cuz of you're brutal honesty then at least you know you're not lying to people.

Kiruv Organizations are either full of  really dumb people (who actually believe in the Kuzari Proof) or have no problem using underhanded, Machiavellian tactics - as long as it will add another Orthodox Jew to the ranks.

It makes me sick.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

The Yahwist Creation and Flood Narratives

Warning this video is highly irreverent watch at your own risk!

In our last DH post we listed the linguistic features of the Patriarchal blessing which use the name YHWH. Now let's look at the bits of creation and the flood which use the name YHWH and see if we can find any linguistic characteristics.

The first creation account was Gen1:1-2:3. Then the Torah starts over and retells how plants, man, and animals were created. Then comes the story of the "fall of man" with the talking snake. These two stories both discussing the Garden of Eden comprise one distinct narrative. The whole thing 2:4-3:24 always uses a unique double divine name of YHWH-Elohim. (I'm not sure how the DH explains that phenomenon if at all)

Anyway notice the following linguistic features.(HT:LF)

  1. The word Anokhi for I. (3:10, 4:9)
  2. The word Adama for ground is VERY frequently used (2:5, 2:6, 2:7, 2:9, 2:19, 3:17, 3:19, 3:23, , 4:3, 4:10, 4:11, 4:12, 4:14) it is used ONLY ONCE in the first creation account (1:25) I will post separately about this later. 
  3. The Beast of the Field (2:19, 2:20, 3:1. 3:14) as opposed to the first creation narrative and the Elohist bits of the flood which call animals Beasts of the Earth  (חית הארץ)
The DH'ers list some other words but they are far less frequent and can be attributed to coincidence but I will list them (erm... copy paste them) for completeness.
  1. עֶצֶב v. sad
    3:16, (twice) 
  2. טֶרֶם prep. before
    Gen 2:5(twice)

Next let's look at the three definite Yahwist bits of the flood story. (6:1-8, 7:1-5, 8:20-22)
  1. The word Adama keeps popping up again (but never with Elohim!) (6:1, 6:7, 7:4, 8:21)
  2. God wipes out  מחה mankind x2 (6:7, 7:4)  instead of just destroying שחת them as in the Elohist sections
  3. God is saddened/speaks to his heart  אל לבו x2 (6:6 , 8:21)
  4. The impulse of the heart of man is evil  x2 ( כי יצר לב האדם רע   (6:5, 8:21
  5. God is generally described with a lot of anthropomorphism unlike when the name Elohim is used: God is sad, God regrets, God speaks to his heart, God smells, God closes the door etc. 
 Coming up: What do holy hand grenades have to do with the DH? How often is the word Adama used? What about the words Terem and Anokhi? What does the DH have to say about various genealogies? And what about all the other bits of Genesis using the name YHWH? And maybe after we've finished ALL OF THAT we can perhaps move onto Exodus! Stay tuned.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

We All Like to Relive Our Journey

I've been thinking...

A lot of us skeptic/kofer bloggers tend to focus on the things that started our "journey". Take me for example. For me the thing which started me thinking outside of the box was Biblical interpretation and Biblical criticism and how Orthodoxy interpreted the Bible differently than Karaites and modern literary analysts. It was the realization that there was definitely more than one way to read the Torah and my way was not necessarily the best one.

But that's just me. Take Yaron Yadan from Daat Emet. The thing which got him thinking was the conflict between Torah and Science something which never vaguely bothered me 'till late into my skepticism. Because this was his personal "spark", he tends to spend a lot of time focusing on that very thing which got him to doubt in the first place - going into great detail about how our Orthodox halachot are more or less based on faulty science. Even though by now he has experienced the full spectrum of religious doubt he still continues to spend a lot of time focusing on the things which got him started.

Other people focus on other things which "got them started". Whether it's the problem of Biblical morality or the ANE parallels to Biblical stories -we all have that one personal and unforgettable moment when the Pandora's Box was opened and our Weltanschauung began to unravel. I think we all sort of enshrine (or hate depending on one's attitude) the subjects that brought about those first steps outside of the world of Orthodox thought even though we have gone through the A-Z of heretical thinking.

Which is why I'll try to finish my DH series one of these days.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Questions of Purpose, questions of science

I'll get back to DH'ing soon hopefully, (even though the stats seem to show that people got pretty bored of it)

Well the religious world has it's knickers in a bit of a knot (including Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks) because of Stephen Hawking's new book where he apparently says that there is no logical or scientific NEED for a God to explain the complexity or origin of the universe. This is a rather irksome development for the believers of the world as religious people have been throwing around Hawking's "know the mind of God" quote around for years in order to make an appeal to scientific authority.

The idea being thrown around now is the old slogan "Science tells us the Hows and Whats religion tells us the whys". This statement presupposes two things A. That why is a legitimate question to ask. and B. That positing the existence of God answers that question - as far as I can tell the religious answer to the "Why" is "Beats me but I think God has it sort of worked out"

Basically the answer which religion provides to the "Why" questions is to create someone else to know the answer.

Richard Dawkins recently engaged in an online chat debate with Ruth Gledhill, The Times religion correspondent. (Transcript here) Gledhill started up with the Hows and Whats vs. the Whys "One would be the the purpose of the universe. Although science might discover the mechanism, we are still left with the question of what is the purpose" Dawkins responded that there is no reason to assume that there is a purpose. There is no reason to assume on SCIENTIFIC or even LOGICAL grounds that there is any sort of teleology in the universe. (Emotionally speaking it's probably a good idea to wishfully think that there is some sort of purpose but THAT is not science or even a field of inquiry)

Dawkins makes another excellent point: The "God answers the Why questions" way of thinking is a bit of a cart before the horse. The question which we desperately need religion to answer is apparently "why is there a universe and more importantly why are there hairless quadrapeds with overactive imaginations" the believers are saying that the only answer to this question is "'cuz of God and his plans"

But wait a second! Purpose is something we generally ascribe to intelligence and intention. If someone has involuntary spasm we don't ask him/her "Why did you do that" because the action in question was not intentional. When there is no intentional agent behind an action we do not ascribe to it a purpose.

Similarly to ask "why is there a universe" is essentially to ask "Why did God make the universe". The question presupposes an intentional designer. But the question never starts if God is not in the picture! SOoooo basically to sum things up: according to the above line of reasoning religion is around to explain a problem it itself engenders.

"[Q]uestions that begin 'What is the purpose of . . .' require the existence of a purposeful agent."

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Jehova, Jehova, Jehova!

Any Excuse for some Monty Python ;) (Deuteronomy of Gath??? Lol)

If you're late to the party:
  1. DH Explained Part 1
  2. DH Explained Part 2
  3. The Flood Narrative
  4. Summing Up The "Elohist"
Okay we've looked at various passages using the name Elohim and shown the seemingly similar vocabulary between them. We dealt with two "genres" - the narrative genres of creation and the flood and the genre of God blessing Adam, Noach and the Patriarchs (the latter appeared in the former)

Let's start by looking at how God talks to the patriarchs when using the name YHWH.

Important: This may or may not be meaningful (more study required) but the word adama for ground, is found 3 times in the passages using the name Elohim (Gen 1:25 6:20 9:2)

Compare this to a superficial sampling of corresponding genres using the name YHWH (parts of the creation story using the name YHWH, the parts of Noach using YHWH, and the blessings of the patriarchs using YHWH) you come up with 2:5, 2:6, 2:7, 2:9, 2:19, 6:1, 6:7, 7:4, 7:8, 7:23, 8:21, 12:3, 28:14, 28:15 - 14X

The word anokhi to mean I (as opposed to regular old Ani) NEVER appears in a passage using the name Elohim. However using the same sampling as adama above. We come up with 7:4, 15:1, 15:2, 15:4, 16:14, 16:8, 28:15, 28:16 - 8X

A. Genesis 12:1-3 God Tells Avraham to leave Canaan
  1. וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ, כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה. - And the families of the earth will be blessed through you
  2. The word אֲדָמָה for ground
B. Genesis 13:14-18 God Tells Avraham that he gets to keep Canaan
  1. "All the land that you see"
  2. וְשַׂמְתִּי אֶת-זַרְעֲךָ, כַּעֲפַר הָאָרֶץ "Like the dust of the earth" - Theme of "uncountable" offspring
  3. Building of an altar subsequent to revelation
  4. North, South, East, West (28:14)
C. Genesis 15 Brit Bein HaBetarim
  1. Simile of stars and offspring - Theme of "uncountable" offspring
  2. אנכי Anokhi - I (15:1, 15:2, 15:4)
D. Genesis 16 An Angel of God speaks to Hagar in the wilderness
  1. וְלֹא יִסָּפֵר, מֵרֹב - they will not be counted from size - Theme of "uncountable" offspring

E. Genesis 26:1-5 God Tells Yitzchak to Stay in Canaan

  1. וְהִרְבֵּיתִי אֶת-זַרְעֲךָ, כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם Simile of stars and offspring - Theme of "uncountable" offspring
  2. וְהִתְבָּרְכוּ בְזַרְעֲךָ, כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ And the nations of the earth will be blessed through your offspring
F. Genesis 28:12-15
  1. וְהָיָה זַרְעֲךָ כַּעֲפַר הָאָרֶץ "Like the dust of the earth" - Theme of "uncountable" offspring
  2. יָמָּה וָקֵדְמָה וְצָפֹנָה וָנֶגְבָּה West, East, North, South
  3. וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כָּל-מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה, וּבְזַרְעֶךָ - And the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your offspring
  4. אנוכי Anokhi - I (28:15)
  5. The word adama for ground (28:14)
  6. Building of an altar subsequent to revelation
AND notice that none of the distinct terminology found in "Elohist" passages appears in any of these passages.

It would appear that we have two types of Patriarchal blessings. Each type using it's own terminology and style yet both types essentially saying the same thing: "You get Canaan, you'll have a lotta kids, and I think you guys generally are pretty cool"

Any words, phrases, or ideas I'm missing?

The next logical step is to compare these passages with the name YHWH to the parts of the creation and flood narrative using the name YHWH. But another time.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Quick Sum Up

Time to sum up what we've learned so far with a fun pedantic list of words:

NOTE: This is not necessarily just a matter of genre. Yes, many of the words we will be quoting are words used in a repeated theme i.e. blessings from God to Adam, Noach and the Patriarchs. However, there are many other blessings to the patriarchs which do not exhibit the linguistic features below including but not limited to using the name YHWH.

Elohist (not E but P) Passages Using Similar Language In Genesis:

Genesis 1-2:4 First Creation Account
  1. Peru U'Revu Be Fruitful and Multiply
  2. Chayat Ha'aretz Animals of the Earth
  3. Tzelem Elokim - Form of God
  4. l-MIN-ehu - according to it's kind
  5. The ground is generally called Eretz
  6. L'ochla - to eat
Genesis 6:9-22 First Commandment to Noach
  1. Kol Basar - All Flesh
  2. Mashchit - Destroy
  3. You, Your Children, Your Children's Wives
  4. I Will Establish My Covenant
  5. l-MIN-ehu - according to it's kind
  6. L'ochla - to eat
Genesis 8:15-20 Noach Leaves the Ark
  1. Peru U'Revu Be Fruitful and Multiply
  2. You, Your Children, Your Children's Wives
Genesis 9:1-16 God Blesses Noach
  1. Peru U'Revu Be Fruitful and Multiply
  2. Chayat Ha'aretz Animals of the Earth
  3. Tzelem Elokim - Form of God
  4. I Will Establish My Covenant
  5. Brit Olam -An eternal covenant
  6. L'ochla - to eat
  7. Kol Basar - All Flesh
Genesis 17 Avraham's Circumsision Pact
  1. Use of the Peru U'revu verbs
  2. El Shaddai
  3. I Will Establish My Covenant
  4. Brit Olam -An eternal covenant
  5. A Father of a Multitude of Nations
Genesis 28:1-19 Yitzchak Sends Yaakov to Padan Aram (Quoting Above)
  1. Use of the Peru U'Revu verbs
  2. El Shaddai
  3. I Will Establish My Covenant
  4. A Father of a Multitude of Nations
Genesis 35:9-15 Yaakov's Blessing at Second Beit El
  1. Peru U'Revu Be Fruitful and Multiply
  2. El Shaddai
  3. a Multitude of Nations
Genesis 48 Yaakov Blesses Yosef (Quoting Above)
  1. Peru U'Revu Be Fruitful and Multiply
  2. El Shaddai
  3. a Multitude of Nations

Spoiler: This collection of verses sharing similar language and ideas is considered the P (Priestly) Source in the DH. We will hopefully soon see what it has to do with priests.

Flood Story Part 1

Just Wondering: Does anyone know how to read little foxling's dead blog? Apparently he wrote extensively about the DH and I would love to read some of his material.

Read these first!:

DH Explained Part 1

DH Explained Part 2

We discussed in the last post some of the passages in Genesis which use the name Elohim exclusively. Among them we listed the first chapter of Bereishit - the creation story, and the first commandment to Noach (Genesis 7:13-22)

Let us begin by enumerating the passages in the flood story which use the name YHWH and the passages which use the name Elohim.

3 Elohim Passages, 3 YHWH passages, and one uncertain

YHWH: 6:1-8 God gets mad at mankind and decides to destroy them

Elohim: 6:9-32 Begins with the declaration "these are the generations of Noach" and continues with God's message to Noach. uses the name Elohim. Makes no distinction between pure and impure animals; we will pursue that in just a bit.

YHWH: 7:1-8 Second commandment to Noach; a distinction is made between "pure animals" and "impure animals" the name YHWH is used.

Uncertain: 7:9-8:15 The story of the flood. This large section rarely mentions God and we can only hypothesize about it based on our observations in more explicit sections. God is only mentioned 4 times, 3 as Elohim and once as YHWH.

Elohim: 8:16-20 God tells Noach to leave the ark; the name Elohim is used.

YHWH: 8:21-22 Noach brings a sacrifice and God is pleased; the name YHWH is used.

Elohim: 9:1-17 God's final covenant with Noach; the name Elohim is used.

If I haven't scared you off by that tedious list, it's time to examine some features of the flood story and see if they fit with our hypothesis. We will be looking at three things

1. The divine names
2. Phrases and words
3. Repetitions and/or contradictions.

We will be especially looking out for the "cluster effect" - do our three types of evidence cluster together? (AKA convergence of evidence) In other words will the divine name Elohim be found with the same sorts of words and phrases and YHWH will be found with the same sorts of words and phrases AND will these clusters of names and phrases correspond to passages that seem to contradict or repeat things - when faced with a repetition will one "version" have Elohim and "it's phrases" and will the other have YHWH and it's phrases. Let's take a look.

A. Vocabulary

The passages using the divine name Elohim differ in language and style from the ones using the name YHWH:

To list a few:

  1. In the first chapter of Genesis (which always uses the name Elohim) constantly uses the phrase "animals; plants; birds - according to their kind" (e.g. 1:21) the flood story also uses this terminology in reference to animals. (6:21) Interestingly enough in a passage using the name Elohim.
  2. Also notice the phrase "Btzelem Elokim" - "in the form of God", which itself uses the name Elohim; is used thrice in the first chapter of Genesis (1:26-27) (but not in the creation of man in Genesis 2) and again here (9:7) Both times used in an "Elohist" passage. YHWH never creates man "Btzelem Elokim".
  3. Once again the phrases "be fruitful and multiply" and "I will establish my covenant" are used only in proximity to the name Elohim just like in G1, and G35. (Here 6:18, 9:1, 9:7, 9:9, and 9:11)
  4. Referring to life as "all flesh" is always in passages using the name Elohim; (6:12, 13, 17, 19 etc.) this occurs only in the Elohim parts of the flood story. YHWH uses the rare word "Yekum" (7:4) and the phrase "all life" (8:21) to refer to the same idea.
  5. Referring to animals as "the animals of the earth"; this occurs both in the first creation story (G1:25, 30) and in one of the Elohim parts of the flood story (G9:2, 10) Incidentally the second creation story using the name YHWH uses the phrase "animals of the field" which never appears in (our) Elohim sections.
  6. The verb "LeShakhet" to destroy is always in close proximity to Elohim (e.g. 6:13, 8:15) (as opposed to the name YHWH which uses the verb -"Mechia" - wiping out. e.g. 7:4 )
  7. The phrase "you, your children, and your children's wives" is always in close proximity to Elohim e.g. 6:18 (as opposed to YHWH which says "you and your house") (For some reason a random verse with this phrase is ascribed to J by the DH'ers, 7:7, I have no idea why!)
  8. The phrase "because the heart of man is evil from his youth" is employed twice (G6:5 and G8:21) both times by YHWH.
  9. The word "Mabul" - deluge or flood - is never used with the name YHWH only in proximity to the name Elohim.

B. Contradictions/Repetitions:

The two commands to Noach seem superfluous both essentially saying the same thing twice. With the one exception of pure and impure animals. This is our classic parallel - with two accounts similar but different + the linguistic features above.

The theme of the 7 of each species of kosher animals is never in proximity to the name Elohim. In God's first command (Elohim) to Noach no special difference is made for pure and impure animals. It merely says to bring two of each of everything. However in the second command (YHWH) 7 pure animals are to be brought. The theme of "pure animals" is continued after Noach leaves the ark and Noach makes animal sacrifices. His sacrifices are offered to YHWH.

Can traditional explanations explain these "two versions" of the flood story? Yes and they can explain how it's all really one story. However very few traditional explanations (at least ones I have seen, I would love to be pointed to new ones) take note of the distinguishing linguistic features immediately apparent in similar but different accounts.

In our next post we will examine the large passage telling the actual story of the flood 7:9-8:15. Stay tuned...

Friday, 27 August 2010

DH Explained Part II: The "Elohist"

Continuing from here

We started with a hypothesis based on various contradictions between when and who was privy to God's name YHWH. The hypothesis so far is:

The accounts in Genesis where God eschews the name YHWH but instead tends to use the terminology EL-Shaddai and Elohim, represents a distinct literary unit, different in some way from AT LEAST the parts of Genesis where God is called either by himself or by the patriarch YHWH. This "literary unit" asserts that the patriarchs did not call God YHWH.

Once again this is but a hypothesis to explain the problem mentioned in the last post. A hypothesis needs evidence and that is what we are doing - examining the evidence (if any). In short: does Genesis and other parts of the Torah support our initial theory?

Let us start with Elohim. The hypothesis states that our "E author" eschews the name YHWH until God makes this "new" name known to Moshe. What passages in Genesis use the name Elohim without YHWH almost exclusively? (There are some passages where the names are alternated those will be dealt with later)

The most obvious "Elohist" passages are:

1) Genesis 1: The first creation account

2) Genesis 6:9-32 God's first commandment to Noach

3) Genesis 17 The Covenant of Circumcision (mentioned in last post; features El Shaddai)

4) Genesis 20 Avraham, Sarah, and Avimelech (this one is problematic because there is one mention of YHWH at the end)

5) Genesis 21:1-20 Hagar's second exile in the desert

6) Genesis 28:1-9 Yitzchak sends Yaakov to Padan Aram (El Shaddai is mentioned)

7) Genesis 35:9-15 Yaakov's revelation (mentioned in last; features El Shaddai)

8) Genesis 40-41 Yosef and Pharaoh (perhaps not conclusive because speaking to Egyptians, Yosef would use the more generic Elohim)

9) Genesis 48 Yaakov blesses Yosef (Yaakov quotes El Shaddai's blessing to him from 7.)

These are passages where the name YHWH is not mentioned at all (Except for once in 4.) These passages also comprise distinct "stories" with a clear beginning and end making it easy to "isolate" them for the purposes of our study.

Now let us make some observations here:

A. Couplets

Notice I put the word "first" and "second" in bold. I did this three times. 1. First Creation 2. First Commandment to Noach and 3. Second Exile of Hagar. These 3 stories are unique in that they have parallels. The first creation has a second creation (Genesis 2) and the first commandment to Noach has a second commandment to Noach (Genesis 7) and the second exile of Hagar vs. the first exile of Hagar (Genesis 16) (We could discuss the two Avimelech accounts also but I don't think they are very conclusive)

Isn't it interesting that these three similar yet different "couplets" have the conspicuous feature of using YHWH in one "couplet" and Elohim in the other. This is either a remarkable coincidence or an indication that PERHAPS that the usage of Elohim or YHWH indicates something more than just random changing of names (we will examine hopefully traditional explanations fort this clear phenomenon). It's not just that some passages say Elohim and other say YHWH but that similar yet different passages often follow this pattern. Interesting.

B. Fruitful and Multiply

We have two more instances of El Shaddai being associated with the blessings of "being fruitful and multiplying". (These instances are patriarchs quoting what El Shaddai told them previously, so Yitzchak in G28 repeats the blessing of Avraham, and Yaakov repeats his blessing to Yosef)

So far the following passages use this terminology: G28, G35, G48, (these 3 also all mention becoming a קהל גויים"a congregation of nations" G17 only says "I will make you very fruitful". To these we can add Genesis 1 which makes frequent use of the "fruitful and multiply" terminology (and provides Judaism with it's best mitzva) It is a remarkable coincidence that every time (so far) the Torah uses the litany of פרה ורבה it just HAPPENS to use the name Elohim or El Shaddai. Very interesting.

C. Another Couplet?

Item number 6) above where Yiztchak sends Yaakov to Padan Aram is preceded by the whole Yaakov and Eisav incident. In that incident the name YHWH was frequently used. In that account Yaakov literally flees for his life (on Rivka's advice) from his vengeful brother Eisav. Then for some reason Rivka starts complaining to Yitzchak that Eisav marrried a bunch of shiksas. So Yiztchak tells Yaakov to go to his uncle. I think we can say with some confidence that these represent similar but different accounts of why Yaakov left. Note the YHWHs in the first and the El Shaddai in the second. Extremely Interesting.

To Be Continued.....

Thursday, 26 August 2010

The Documentary Hypothesis (Partly) Explained : Part 1

I'm not necessarily saying the Documentary Hypothesis is accurate or correct on all points of Biblical authorship and I'm not even supporting the truth of the DH (right now). I also am not saying that the DH necessarily leads to denial of the divinity of the Torah or of Judaism. Those are discussion for other posts. All I want to do here is show what the DH actually says (as opposed to various strawmen used in many Orthodox apologetics) and what evidence it's supporters bring in it's favor. That's all. An Orthodox Jew should take a particular interest in this discussion , because IF s/he wishes to deal with various religious problems supposedly posed by the DH, s/he MUST have a complete understanding of what the DH really says. Attacking a straw man of the DH is just stupid and disingenuous.

Let us start with a common strawman that the Orthodox often use when discussing the DH:

The Documentary Hypothesis MERELY says that God is sometimes called YHWH and sometimes called Elohim and ASSUMES that that implies multiple authors.

A large part of the DH is based on the cycling between God being called YHWH and Elohim. That is true. However, it is not JUST based on the fact that this change occurs. Rather it is based on the similarities and differences between the narratives in which the names are changed.

It all starts with some curious verses in Shemot. (6:2)

ב וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אֲנִי יְהוָה. ג וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב--בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי; וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם.

And God spoke unto Moses, and said unto him: 'I am the LORD; 3 and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as El Shaddai, but by My name YHWH I made Me not known to them.
Now these verses make a very interesting assertion. They say pretty explicitly that God never "made known" his name YHWH to the patriarchs. However the problem with this immediately apparent. As we all know God, in various places in Genesis in fact DOES reveal himself with the name YHWH and even sometimes uses the same terminology of "I am YHWH".

Edit: Examples:

Genesis 15:7
וַיֹּאמֶר, אֵלָיו: אֲנִי יְהוָה, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים--לָתֶת לְךָ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, לְרִשְׁתָּהּ

7 And He said unto him: 'I am YHWH that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it.'
Genesis 28:10
יב וַיַּחֲלֹם, וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה, וְרֹאשׁוֹ, מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה; וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים, עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ. יג וְהִנֵּה יְהוָה נִצָּב עָלָיו, וַיֹּאמַר,
אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ, וֵאלֹהֵי יִצְחָק; הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה שֹׁכֵב עָלֶיהָ--לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה, וּלְזַרְעֶךָ.

12 And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of Elohim ascending and descending on it. 13 And, behold, YHWH stood beside him, and said: 'I am YHWH, the God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac. The land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed. 1

We could perhaps say that the narrative doesn't actually mean that the patriarchs did not know the name of YHWH at all. Perhaps they merely did not understand the MEANING or the IMPLICATIONS of the holy name. However there are certain passages in Genesis which seem to fit PERFECTLY with a literal interpretation of this passage in Exodus.

I am referring to two revelations one to Avraham and one to Yaakov let us take a look.

Genesis 17:1

א וַיְהִי אַבְרָם, בֶּן-תִּשְׁעִים שָׁנָה וְתֵשַׁע שָׁנִים; וַיֵּרָא יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי-אֵל שַׁדַּי--הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי, וֶהְיֵה תָמִים

And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, YHWH appeared to Abram, and said unto him: 'I am El Shaddai; walk before Me, and be thou wholehearted.
and Genesis 35:9-11

ט וַיֵּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶל-יַעֲקֹב עוֹד, בְּבֹאוֹ מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם; וַיְבָרֶךְ, אֹתוֹ. י וַיֹּאמֶר-לוֹ אֱלֹהִים, שִׁמְךָ יַעֲקֹב: לֹא-יִקָּרֵא שִׁמְךָ עוֹד יַעֲקֹב, כִּי אִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל יִהְיֶה שְׁמֶךָ, וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמוֹ, יִשְׂרָאֵל. יא וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אֱלֹהִים אֲנִי אֵל שַׁדַּי, פְּרֵה וּרְבֵה--גּוֹי וּקְהַל גּוֹיִם, יִהְיֶה מִמֶּךָּ; וּמְלָכִים, מֵחֲלָצֶיךָ יֵצֵאוּ

And Elohim appeared unto Jacob again, when he came from Paddan-aram, and blessed him [....] 11 And Elohim said unto him: 'I am El Shaddai. Be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee, and kings shall come out of thy loins

In both these revelation God specifically refrains from using the name YHWH when talking to the patriarchs he ONLY, and let me stress that again, ONLY uses the words Elohim and El Shaddai when referring to himself. (In 17:1 the word YHWH is used to describe God in the third person but when he actually speaks he uses the other names exclusively never using the name YHWH again in the whole passage)

Isn't it interesting that on the one hand we have various accounts in Genesis where God seems to "break the rule" that he made in Exodus, while in other places he keeps the rule "religiously".

Let us make a hypothesis and at this point it is JUST a hypothesis. PERHAPS there are two versions of God's public relations policy with the patriarchs. PERHAPS we are looking at the writings of two different people both telling basically the same story but with slightly different details.

What kind of evidence would we need to substantiate this hypothesis?

Surely different writers would have different writing styles and use slightly different expressions. In theory we should be able to find some difference between the "literary style" of the supposed "E author" and the supposed "J author". (To use the terminology of the DH)

Assuming that Exodus 6, Genesis 17, and Genesis 35 comprise a distinct literary unit which is different than various other revelations employing the name YHWH there are indeed some unique stylistic features.

Some things G17 and G35 have in common:

1. Both bless the patriarchs with "kings coming from them"
2. Both discuss being fruitful and multiplying
3. In both of them "Elohim goes up" after he is done with his chat.
4. In both the names of Avram and Yaakov are changed to AvrAHam and Yisrael respectively

Some things G17, G35, and E6 have in common:

1. The use of El Shaddai (as mentioned)
2. The use of the term "And I will establish this covenant"

These similarities are interesting but far from conclusive (or even convincing at this point). We will have to further investigate Genesis to substantiate our hypothesis of TWO or more authors or documents and see if we can find any other evidence for this theory or if it is what many Orthodox call it - a "failed hypothesis".

To Be Continued.... (maybe)