Monday, 31 May 2010

What's so Modern about Modern Orthodox Halacha?

Forget about the fact that Orthodoxy is clinging on to fairly untenable beliefs. And forget the dubious validity of ancient rituals from the Torah. What about our system of halacha what in the world is going on with that!?

Let’s just look at the parts of halacha which are clearly Rabbinical Judaism leaving aside the more Biblical parts. Of course to a Chareidi there is no difference because to him all of the Torah She beal Peh comes straight from Sinai. However most intelligent people realize that the TSBP is just the Rabbinical interpretation (a very liberal interpretation) of Biblical law. (See my summary of TSBP) Surely most Modern Orthodox people realize this in which case it’s about time they start changing the obsolete bits. I have to assume that either they’re too scared that they’ll lose credibility to the crazies in the black hats, or that they really don’t understand that there is no religious reason to hold onto obsolete halachot and keeping them is just a pain to everyone.

What obsolete halachot?

- We spend half of our prayers on praying for a Temple that no one really wants. We spend a whole fast day praying for the rebuilding of a city that was rebuilt centuries ago.

- We won’t drink wine touched by a non-Jew because he might have made it into a libation for an idol (or to stop social interaction with non-Jews which is equally stupid because you’re not chumming up with the guy who manufactures your wine) We won’t eat food cooked by a non-Jew for similar reasons.

- We won’t let women become Rabbis or learn Gemara (depending how RW) because the people who wrote our law books were sexist (as was everyone back then).

- We don’t eat fish with meat because of some superstition of the Talmud. We do metziza b’peh because the Gemara thought it had a therapeutic effect.

- We’re not supposed to take medicine on Shabbat because back in the day they used to crush up spices for medicinal purposes.

- We won’t eat kitniyot on Pesach because …. Erm actually I have no idea why the hell don’t we? [EDIT FOR NTP]: Because back in the "heim" people, presumably during manufacture, used to mix kitniyot up with the 5 grains.

And that’s just off the top of my head. Now I know some elements of Orthodoxy have tried to reform (or just ignore) some of the above but for the most part we’re stuck with a lot of this rubbish.

Keeping halacha is hard enough as it is but not ridding ourselves of useless debris left behind by time just makes things impossible. What kind of law code can only become stricter but never become more lenient? What kind of law code doesn’t change to fit the times? Rabbinical Judaism was originally an attempt to reform Biblical law, it has totally lost focus. Keeping these things does no one any good.

There are essentially two ways to make excuses for this desperately annoying intransigence:

1.Chazal were supermen and who are we to change what they set down as halacha (I don’t even need to respond to that)

2.There was an agreement from all of Klal Yisrael to accept the Talmud as unchanging law

2 is all well and good except that there is zero record of some sort of decision to officially accept the Talmud but even if we say it’s a tacit agreement all it takes is a little and I mean just a little bit of common sense to realize that Chazal if they could see us today would probably be laughing. Because Chazal were not intransigent they liked to innovate and reinterpret. If they had been as conservative as the Orthodoxy nowadays we would still be knocking people’s eyes out as a punishment.

Once again the Charedi denies there was ever any change in halacha but a well educated MO Rabbi? Does he really not realize that Rabbinical Judaism was originally all about innovation and that it is not something handed down from Sinai but rather a way to adapt Biblical law to changing circumstances?

What is the difference between Conservative Judaism and MO Judaism? It’s that Conservative Judaism had the cajones to say “we’re going to set up a council of Rabbis to keep Rabbinical Judaism in touch with the changing times.” Oh how terrible of them they want to keep Rabbinical Judaism up with the times what kofrim and minnim and bla bla bla

Modern Orthodoxy has to realize that it’s not weakness to try to bring halacha up to date.

Monday, 24 May 2010

How to Read the Bible (No not the Book)

When I was younger and I started having doubts about TMS I went to talk to a kiruv Rabbi about it.I was pretty haughty at the time and I said to myself "If he can answer my questions then I'll stay frum, if he can't I'll go OTD" I guess I was kinda figuring he would be blown away by my questions and would admit that he was living a lie. I blasted him with DH and anachronisms and everything I had up my sleeve and .....

lo and behold he had answers! But oh what bitter answers they were because they were all kvetches! Dirty stinking kvetches. Almost every "answer" he gave was preceded by the famous words of any self respecting kvetcher "It depends how you look at it" It was fairly annoying that this guy didn't take off his kippa and say "YOU'RE RIGHT!" I was hopeful for about two seconds that this guy had anything worthwhile to say and then gave up.

but I did learn something very important which made the whole thing worthwhile. You can always explain all the problems away. No self respecting Rabbi doesn't have the "answers". However the question is does he have GOOD answers or BAD answers. ALMOST ANYTHING IN THE WORLD CAN BE "INTERPRETED" TO FIT YOUR VIEWS!

So with this all in mind how should you read the Bible?

When one gets to a troublesome verse one can kvetch till one's lips are blue but it still will not be an honest approach. What you really have to do is say if I was reading say the Odyssey and I came to a passage like this how would I read it? Would i seriously apply kvetches or would I read it LIKE IT SOUNDS? That's the key to accurate Bible reading drop your preconceived notions (as the Shadal advises) and read it the way it SEEMS. Thats the difference between how skeptics read the Torah and believers read the Torah. The skeptic (at least an honest one) reads the Torah simply and says what do these words mean? The believer reads the Torah and says what do I want these words to mean? Its all about realizing the simplest most obvious explanation.

Of course if you have a good reason (besides emotional attachment to TMS) to change the simple meaning then by all means do! But then you also have to explain why the Biblical author expressed it in such a strange way and THAT is what almost all kvetches fail to do!

"But the DH also has preconceived notions", says the believer. Yes it does you're right don't just follow everything Kugel and Friedman say. However one must be equally devoid of preconceived notions when evaluating Mosaic authorship. In my next post I'll try to tackle specific examples of things that although they are kvetchable read simply suggest non-Mosaic authorship and also maybe the DH.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Is Honesty That Important For Judaism

XGH has been discussing recently about the problems in MO(whats new)

The only type of Modern Orthodoxy that can be lechatchilah is one which is HONEST. Anything less can only ever be bdieved. And frankly, a religion based on lies (or based on myths characterized as absolute literal truth), is not even bdieved. It's simply a lie.

Is there any point in fighting MO stupidities or for that matter UO stupidities like XGH? Is it really that important to demand honesty? Maybe unhonest religion is not as bad as everyone makes out.

People often say that it is unfair to make people live a lie and that living your life based a lie is a waste bla bla bla bla

All I know is I was a lot happier before I was skeptical. I thinks most Jewish skeptics agree. Ignorance is truly bliss. Is it right to take that bliss away?

In fact chareidim probably have the most comforting world view of any Jew. They've got a loving God taking care of their every need and promise of an afterlife. They also have these super-Gedolim who can tap into God's will and tell them exactly what to do and how to do it. Everything is structured, you really don't need to think or wonder, every question you've ever had can be answered by the Torah/Gemara. So maybe once in a while you feel guilty because you ripped the toilet paper on shabbat but nu you have teshuva to fix all your sins. Even a RWMO Jew is pretty well off nu so he has to come up with some ingenious explanation for Bereishit and the Mabul but at the end of the day everything is fine because God has everything worked out.

Is it moral to allow people to live lies? Why the hell not? If you're a real skeptic then there is no accountability and morality is most probably subjective anyway. Adopt a sort of utilitarian approach if it makes you feel better the best system is the one that makes the most people happy.

Of course the next question is are deeply religious people really happier? I always assume they are. Maybe I'm wrong but having a big brother in the sky is admittedly a pretty comforting idea (unless you did some really terrible things I guess)

Ah so what about all the evil that religion causes. Hitchens could go on forever about how religion destroys the world and it's imperative for us to get rid of it.
I just don't know if you can apply that to Judaism.
Maybe other religions do some really bad things but in general Judaism has not gotten up to a lot of terrorism or religious persecution. A few garbage can get burnt once in a while but we don't have inquisitions and jihad so we aren't getting up to anything too egregious.Can one really say that OJ is really evil?

Yes of course there is the problem of us deviants and people like R Slifkin who get repressed by dogmatic establishments but are these the majority? Do most Orthodox Jews really feel repressed or is it just the few who have realized the holes in the system. IF Orthodox Judaism and even Chareidism really make most of its members happy who are we skeptics to try to take them out of their reverie?

There are a lot of questions here that need to be answered. But it is by no means simple that people are better off living according to the "truth" than following an attractive lie. Maybe we should all just shut up bite the bullet and let the rest of the world be happy. Its kind of selfish to demand the frum world to change to fit our taste.

But hey if morality is subjective then maybe I'll just be selfish ;)

Monday, 17 May 2010

The Begining of Knowledge is Awe of God: Heschel's Approach to God

I have been discussing in my posts the concept of non-rational religion. What I basically had in mind was the approach of Avrham Yehoshua Heshcel as expressed in his book God In Search of Man. I want to discuss how Heschel justified belief in God.

Heschel believed that we can sense God’s existence emotionally. He focuses on the emotion one experiences in the presence of the sublime or mysterious. The sublime and the awe it entails are present everywhere. “The sublime may be sensed in things of beauty as well as things of goodness and in search of truth.” “We explore the ways of being but do not know what, or why or wherefore being is. Neither the world nor our thinking or anxiety about the world are accounted for.” When we stand in awe and astonishment of the world and its incomprehensibility we are experiencing a sense of the transcendent , of the enigmatic. “The mystery is an ontological category. What it stands for is to most people most obviously given in the experience of exceptional events. However it is a dimension of all experience everywhere and at all times. “

Heschel is careful not to reduce the concept of God to mystery. He does not believe in naturalistic religion. “We do not deify the mystery; we worship Him who in his wisdom surpasses all mysteries.”

Heschel stresses that God is not a scientific concept. God is ineffable and is a concept which cannot truly be articulated in words. Modern man impressed by the achievements of science and rationality has forgotten that not everything in the world can be explained. The irreligious man tries to ignore the essential mystery of the world but he is merely kidding himself.

The mitzvot (and presumably all forms of religious service) according to Heschel are a response to the mystery inherent in the universe, a constant reminder of he who “is concealed in darkness” We make a beracha on everything because ultimately everything stems from that ultimate mystery of existence. “It is not a feeling for the mystery of living, or a sense of awe, wonder, or fear, which is the root of religion; but rather what to do with awe wonder or fear.”

I think that pretty much sums up Heschel

This line of reasoning (or maybe emotionalizing) is very similar to the romantic approach first espoused by Rousseau. The romanticists often felt that they knew God’s existence from their feelings not their reason. Heshcel seems to continue this tradition but was the first to express it with Biblical and Talmudic phraseology.
So what do I think about all of this? Bertrand Russell (in his characteristic scornful tone) has the following to say about Rousseau’s (and Heschel’s) romantic approach
“There are two objections to the practice of basing beliefs as to objective fact upon the emotions of the heart. One is that there is no reason whatever to suppose that such beliefs will be true; the other is, that the resulting beliefs will be private, since the heart says different things to different people.”

Also I would like to add something else. Heschel does not really explain how a being who is beyond mystery (God) follows from the fact that there is mystery. Yes we may have a sense of mystery and transcendence but does it follow that there is some sort of transcendent being? In fact the entire first section of God In Search of Man could easily be about naturalistic worship of “mystery.” Heschel’s insistence on a “real” God does not seem to fit into the scheme he lays out in his book.

I think Heschel’s ideas are very useful for those already convinced of God’s existence. Those who “know” already that there is a God but want to feel him in their everyday lives can derive much inspiration from this book. Heshcel initially presents his book as a rediscovery of the questions to which religion is an answer. Maybe Heshcel is only speaking to the unmotivated believer.

But does Heschel have anything to offer to the more skeptic minded?

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Oy vey the internet

I couldn't resist posting this clear example of the politicization of religion

From Rabbi Neustdat's Weekly Halacha

Question: Is it permitted to visit the so-called frum news websites or blogs which often contain lashon ha-ra and rechilus, or offensive material about Torah ideals or Torah scholars?

Discussion: Obviously, it is forbidden for one to read forbidden material such as those enumerated above. Certainly, if one did come across such material, he is not allowed to accept the information at face value. Still, not all frum websites are created equal: some are more careful than others in the halachos of lashon ha-ra, etc. Sometimes, too, there may be some benefit to the information being published. It is imperative, therefore, that each frum website employ a rav who will be available to rule on questionable material – whether it may, or should, be published. A frum website that does not engage a rav to rule on these questions is, by definition, not frum, and therefore should not be patronized by frum people. Certainly, anyone who advertises or supports frum websites that do not follow Halachah is guilty of aiding and abetting transgressors - clearly forbidden by the Shulchan Aruch.

It is important to add another point: A cursory review of the popular frum websites reveals that most of the forbidden material is found not in the presentation of the news itself, but rather in the readers’comments attached to the news item. The comments, which are written anonymously and without acceptable restriction or censorship, range from sheer, blatant kefirah to outright lashon ha-ra and degradation of all that is holy in yiddishkeit. Any site which allows comments such as these to appear on its website is not worthy of being allowed into a Jewish home.

Anyone who has been paying attention to the frum world realizes the agenda here. Apparently criticism of Chareidim and Chareidi ideology is assur in halacha. (Who knew!) Besides the fun of Chareidi bashing I posted this to make an important point. I have a friend who considers himself Modern Orthdox. He believes in evolution and science and fallible Rabbis etc. However he strangely follows the pesak of a very Chareidi local Rabbi. I asked him why would you follow the pesak of someone who has a completely different world view than you? He answered that he only follows his halachic rulings. The mistake my friend made, of course, is that A. Halacha is subjective and is affected by one's convictions and B. That there is no clear line between halacha and "advice" The RWMO need to realize that you cant have a MO world view and still follow Chareidi halacha!

This quote from Neustdat clearly shows a Chareidi passing off his personal convictions about the internet and "seditious" literature as halacha! Wake up people the Chareidim are blurring the line between halacha and opinion. They are trying to inhibit free speech and criticism in the name of halacha and Judaism!!!

Monday, 10 May 2010

What is the Torah She B'al Peh

You've heard about it, you've argued about it, you learn it but what is it?

Forgetting about D'rabanans for a second lets give a few possibilities and see how each possibility deals with Derashot and Machlokot. Also what are the advantages and disadvantages to holding each view.

1. Its all from Sinai

This is what you were taught in day school. With the Torah Shebikhtav (TSBK) was a TSBP. Rav Hirsch famously says (i think) that the TSBK is like the notes to the real thing which is the TSBP.
Machloket: Either people got confused or two traditions were given at Sinai
Derashot: Are like asmachta's they don't create new halachot they are merely a way of connecting to distinct things (TSBK and TSBP) this is the view of the Dorot Harishonim
Advantages: Any weird halacha I'll still follow its because its straight from God
Disadvantages: No record of a huge Oral Law floating around in Ancient Israel, also the Gemara seems to imply that Derashot generate halachot, and what kinda crappy transmission would generate so many machlokot seriously?!

2. Most of its from Sinai
The main things are from Sinai (39 melachot, when you get malkot, that you wear tefillin etc.)
Machloket: Only on the details no machloket on anything important
Derashot: Depedning on the case either a way to derive "details" or see 1.
Advantages: An understanding of derashot more in line with the Gemara and no need to say machlokot come from really spaced out rabbis. Also the TSBP is acc. to this much smaller and it is more conceivable that it was floating around
Problems: Sometimes Rabbis do argue about fundamental things! (e.g. Bait Shammai and Beit Hillel in the beginning of Yevamot)

3. Some of its from Sinai
The things not learned form derashot are from Sinai (black tefillin etc.) As are the 13 middot of exegesis. (I believe either this or maybe 2. is the Rambam's view)
Machloket: Arguments about created halachot
Derashot: Create halachot
Advantages: This is really just a tiny variation form 2. It based mainly on the distinction the Gemara makes between HLMM and derashot.
Disadvantages: There are machlokot even on things the Gemara calls HLMMS.

4. None of its from Sinai
The TSBP is the interpretation of the TSBK by the Tannaim and the Amoraim. Any text needs to be interpreted and the 13 middot are just a way of interpreting the text.
Machloket: see 3.
Deraashot: see 3
Advantages: You can be as skeptical as you want as to what Ancient Israelites actually did. And also explain why the TSBP sometimes totally distorts what the TSBK says (because the Rabbis wanted to change things)
Problems: Why should I care what a buncha Rabbis thought the TSBK meant? I know better! And those 13 middot are just weird. And its basically Conservatism.

You might've noticed that the further down the list we go the more the advantages reflect believability (or truth) as opposed to utility (or making you feel better)

Well i think that sums it up Bkitzur Nimratz. Maybe I'll get a change to go through this list B'Iyun

Friday, 7 May 2010

The Sinai "Proof" and other Psychological Kiruv "Proofs"

- Why does the supposed in Redactor in the DH sometimes try to resolve contradictions and sometimes not?

- If the Torah was written by man how could it make such outrageous promises about Shmitta?

- How could anyone believe a fake Sinai revelation?

This is the ammunition of kiruv guys to convince people that it is rational and necessary to believe in Judaism. The mistake these people are making is that they believe they can accurately predict human psychology. Human psychology is just so complex that it is almost impossible to say what exactly people will actually do. I suppose these kiruv arguments also have just a little to much faith in human intelligence. Here is an update: people are capable of being very very very stupid. You can't always rationalize the strange and sometimes impulsive things people do (especially a long time ago when almost nobody was educated)

Once I'm on topic I just want to point out that the phenomenon of Shmitta happened in historical times! How could a human tell all the Jews not to cultivate for a year and then make the divine promise that they would have enough grain to make it by!?

Well what about the South African Xhosa?

From Wikipedia
"In April or May 1856, the teenaged Nongqawuse and her friend Nombanda went to fetch water from a pool near the mouth of the Gxarha River. When she returned, Nongqawuse told her uncle and guardian Mhlakaza, a Xhosa spiritualist, that she had met the spirits of three of her ancestors.She claimed that the spirits had told her that the Xhosa people should destroy their crops and kill their cattle, the source of their wealth as well as food. In return the spirits would sweep the British settlers into the sea. The Xhosa would be able to replenish the granaries, and fill the kraals with more beautiful and healthier cattle.Mhlakaza repeated the prophecy to Paramount Chief Sarhili. Sarhili ordered his followers to obey the prophecy, causing the cattle-killing movement to spread to an unstoppable point. The cattle-killing frenzy affected not only the Gcaleka, Sarhili's clan, but the whole of the Xhosa nation. Historians estimate that the Gcaleka killed between 300,000 and 400,000 head of cattle."

Sounds an awfully lot like Shmitta to me