Monday, 14 June 2010

How I Became Skeptical Part II : My Pandora's Box

I always wonder what I would be like today if my childhood had been just a little different. As I said before in an earlier post How I Became Skeptical, the things that really got me thinking were rather small. It was the mere discovery of the concept of the DH that began to make my little head spin. Just finding out that Karaites still existed and firmly rejected TSBP got me in a tizzy.

Evolution never worried me because I always knew that evolution was true and I also always "knew" that you don't take those parts of the Torah literally. I always "knew" that the Rabbis in the Gemara knew how to learn not how to cure diseases or study biology. Since I had always "known" that these things were not threats to Judaism I never got worried by them.

What if I had grown up knowing about the DH and the human origin of the TSBP? What if I had grown up knowing the apologetics to explain these things away. I would probably have been desensitized to these things and would never have been surprised by their discovery. I would never have received that terrifying jolt of terror, that feeling that "they were hiding this from me!"

Once I found that there were things that my Rabbis had never told me I started thinking and once that started it was all downhill (or uphill depending on your opinions about religion). The faith-panic that I was unable to deal with as a child of 14 totally threw me off balance and broke my conditioning. Maybe if someone had pounced on me as soon as I had a glimmer of doubt, and explained it all away, maybe then I would have turned my brain back off and continued to follow Jewish doctrines like a sheep. Since I let my doubts simmer untreated for years, they began to grow unhindered, like a virus slowly infecting all of my childhood faith with doubt. Maybe once I had my first tiny little doubt no amount of apologetics could "save" me. I feel that those simple little books with with their little seditious suggestions were my Pandora's box. The day I began to wonder if my Rabbis got it wrong, spelled the end of my credulity.

So for anyone out there who wants to brainwash their kids into the Jewish faith (not that I support brainwashing) this is what you should do:

1. Tell your kids about every reason people have had and will have to doubt Judaism

2. Tell them that all the doubters were and will always be wrong

3. Repeat and Reinforce the above constantly

Withholding Bible criticism, philosophy, science or anything from someone can result in "disastrous consequences". The best is to expose them to everything, thus desensitizing them, and then use apologetics to explain that evolution, the DH, and everything else inimical to Judaism are either A. Not true or B. Not threats to Jewish faith.

B. is the best option because A. might collapse later on in life. If you grow up thinking that the DH  is rubbish and then pick up a Kugel's book then you will undoubtedly experience the "belief shock." However if you were raised with B. and you believe that the DH is true but is not a threat to Judaism. You will never be hit by a wave of doubt.   
This is a lesson that all faiths should learn before they set up their insular societies and education systems. Sheltering only works to a certain extent.

These passages were my Pandora's Box:


The substance of this Biblical account is history. The reference to the Chaldees is anachronistic since the Chaldeans did not penetrate southern Mesopatamia until towards the end of the second millennium BC... The Chaldeans were inserted to identify UR to readers of the Bible in the first millennium BC.

A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson

If you grow up Orthodox you learn that every word of the Torah is untampered with the existence of an anachronism in the Torah deeply worried me.

And this:

Biblical scholars have conjectured that the Old Testament is composed essentially of four major narratives, the "J", "E", "JE" and "P" documents woven into one.

Jews, God, and History By Max I. Dimont

I had never heard of the DH before reading this. It came as an unwelcome surprise.

Looking back I can't believe how much of an effect these relatively innocuous passages had on my teenage psyche. But I still remember reading these things today. I remember the terror I felt when I read these things, the confusion, the disillusionment. I might be dramatizing a bit (then and now) but I was genuinely afraid that maybe just maybe my Jewish way of life was a lie. I'm sure many people would not have reacted the way I did but nevertheless this is what began to make me "tick."

These tiny meaningless little things were my Pandora's Box.

I would love to hear what your Pandora's Box was.


Zippy said...

Growing up, I loved science fiction. I remember reading Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein when I was 12. In the book, Heinlein knocked religion mercilessly. That was my Pandora's Box. Like you, I still held on to yiddishkeit for many years and struggled to believe but the damage was done.

Anonymous said...

Me, too, Zippy. I must've read Stranger in a Strange Land when I was about 12. It wasn't so much that book as the general nature of science fiction that gave me an outsider's perspective on Orthodoxy. Societies could be constructed! Sometimes around false values! Given that background, I never had the kind of certainty that characterizes true believers.

I also remember reading a biography of Thomas Jefferson in high school, and this quote: "I swear upon the altar of God, eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man." I really liked that quote. Thought about adopting it as a credo. Then, I thought about Orthodoxy. Uh, oh.

Garnel Ironheart said...

1) Johnson was wrong about the Chaldeans. He was relying on outdated archeological information that has since been updated and now supports the Biblical account.

2) Every single DH objection has been answered. The only way DH folks can answer the objections is by announcing that they are all apologetics, not by actually refuting them.

As for these, try this:

1. Tell your kids about every reason people have had and will have to doubt Judaism

2. Tell them that all the doubts have actually been addressed by authorities from the Talmud down to our own day. Instead of assuming that we must be wrong because the other side says so, go read what the doubters say and then read the responses with an open mind.

3. Repeat and Reinforce the above constantly

Baal Habos said...

Totally agreed. Imagine growing up totally sheltered, i.e. chareidized, no Ancient earth no concept of evolution, no knowledge of dinosaurs and then at age twenty hearing about an ancient earth. The excuse of the mabul having "pressurized" the earth and making it appear ancient and causing all those fossils would have fallen on deaf ears. Those same ridiculous excuses taught to me at age 12 sustained my emuna even through a college geology class. It's because I was innoculated. My undoing at at age 40 was learning about ANE history.

Shilton HaSechel said...


1. You missed the point Garnel (what a surprise) even if Johnson and the DH were 100% wrong it still got me thinking

2. Every single DH objection has not been answered. I agree that some people are a bit dogmatic about the DH but please I challenge you to answer every problem posed by the DH mindset

My definition of apologetics is in this post:

Please Garnel I'm begging you to give me SOURCES!!! You always make assertions like "Johnson was wrong, Archaeology was wrong, everything is wrong! (except Judaism of course)"

Gimme me SOURCES!!!

But you never do. Every time I ask for sources you just ignore me hmmmmm what's so hard about bringing sources?

So for the record here are the sources you still haven't brought for me:

1. Your thing about Pithom and Ramses
2. The camel thing (no Aish Hatorah is not a source)
3. The Chaldeans thing

I'm always open to be proven wrong. I would happily listen to any good evidence you have.

But don't make any more assertions about archaeology and history w/o bringing me the sources.

I await your reply

Garnel Ironheart said...
(This is an English summary of the Italian original which was several mega-volumes in size and only deals with the book of Bereshis)

Garnel Ironheart said...

And no I didn't miss your point. So it got your thinking. Chrisianity has a different version of history than us too. So? You can think but the automatic assumption too many people make is that DH has some kind of greater legitimacy and that the Bible has to prove itself against it. My approach is the opposite. Can DH prove its own legitimacy? I don't think so.

Also, it's high time you listed me in your blog roll.

Shilton HaSechel said...


I was hoping for actual page number sources and references to the specific things you said but w/e. (Also all your sources are either devout Christians or Rabbis, and Cassuto AFAIK didn't believe in Mosaic authorship even though he rejected the DH. Some secular archaeologists would be nice)

Anyway yes you did miss the point. Because there are other problems with Judaism besides the DH. Do your really think that is my only problem? The DH just got the turbines in my head spinning.

You have to earn a place on my blog roll ;)
you'll get a spot when you give me EXACT references to your assertions.

Okay no more discussion about the DH

back to the Pandora's box topic

(Garnel, I'm invoking your rule: Keep your comments relevant)

Shilton HaSechel said...

Baal Habos,

It makes one wonder why the Charedi education system does not deem it necessary to deal with the DH. I guess they don't figure it to be as big a threat as evolution. (Also I guess they figure everyone knows about evolution anyway)

What aspect of ANE history got you worried?

Baruch Spinoza said...

Hello Shilton,

If you are interested in how I gave up religion you can read .

My conflict with Judaism was entirely different from yours. I had a moral conflict. The Torah demands mass genocides of so many civilizations. This bothered me more than anything. It was not even the science conflict but the moral conflict. Eventually, I found other problems too, but it all started with basic morality.

It also seems that some Jewish believers are functionally retarded. Their intelligence is just so pathetic when it comes to arguing for Judaism that you have to wonder if they really are funtionally retarded. Take someone like the Jewish Philosopher. When you read his posts it feels like a Holocaust of brain cells have just occured in your mind. For Orthodox Jewish posters I question if their brains even function noramlly.

Baruch Spinoza said...

Shilton if you are interested to read some more skeptical material on the Penteteuch and Tanach I recomment to read "Theological-Political Treatise" by Baruch Spinoza. It was, I believe, the first ever written work that argued against the divinity of the Bible using nothing other than the Bible itself. It was written by an Orthodox Jew who later became an atheist at 25, but before that age people thought he might be one of the great Rabbaim.

S. said...

It's funny that Paul Johnson set you off. His History of the Jews is a big, big favorite of many frum people.

Shilton HaSechel said...

Baruch Spinoza,

To be fair most Orthodox Jews are not as retarded as JP. He would be crazy whether he was an atheist, Buddhist, or communist. (And thank God he belongs to a relatively pacifistic religion like Judaism who knows what he would do if he belonged to a more militant religion)

Also retarded isn't quite the word I would use its more like tunnel vision. To a certain extent all of us have a bit of tunnel vision e.g. most people don't doubt that medicine or surgery works even though they have little idea how. Imagine how you would react if someone tried to convince you that medicine didn't really work and surgery was just a hoax. Would you really take such a person seriously? That is how many OJ'ers feel towards skeptics.

The problem with OJ Believers is the DEGREE of tunnel vision and that their tunnel vision happens to be often wrong.

Yeah Spinoza (the real one) was ahead of his times. Imagine how much intellectual honesty it took for him to reject the Bible in his day and age. Imagine the amount of conditioning he had to overcome. Almost no one in Europe doubted the Bible but he just stuck to his guns.

Shilton HaSechel said...


Really? I thought frummies are supposed to stick to Rabbinicaly approved favorites like Berel Wein.

I guess some religious people like him because he drops little hints once in a while like "maybe it was chance or maybe it was providence"

What threw me off was that I figured that he was citing a well known external historical fact that the Chaldeans were an anachronism in the Pentateuch.

I always sort of ignored all the references to polytheism in Ancient Israel because they rarely quoted external sources ("Those goyim just don't understand the Torah that's all")

External evidence (yeah I know PJ doesn't bring evidence but I was a kid) was what really bothered me.

OTD said...

Garnel is a filthy liar who thinks he can make any assertion without backing it up. He invents tales whole cloth and then gets insulted when you don't believe him. Discovering such sleazy liars like him made me seriously question the credibility of all rabbis. Trust is like a mirror: You can fix it if its broke, but you'll always see a crack in the motherf****rs reflection.

S. said...

>Really? I thought frummies are supposed to stick to Rabbinicaly approved favorites like Berel Wein.

It's one of the most Jewish-friendly history of the Jews written by a non-Jew. He also doesn't have a denominational axe to grind, something frum Jews tend to discern in the productions by non-Orthodox historians.

I've seen it referred to positively many many times and, moreover, as an authoritative source by rabbis and other frum writers, in casual and formal settings. I think Rabbi Wein also cites him.

I'll summarize why in one sentence by Jacob Neusner: "Johnson believes that the Jews have a separate and single specific identity, which they have maintained."

OTD said...

My Pandora's box probably came from reading the Bible. I was 20 years old and had been in yeshiva forever learning gemara and other bovine fecal matter. I decided I'd get back to the source and see what my crazy religion was actually based on. So I spent a few months going through the entire Tanach going through the English section (sometimes the Hebrew section). I was struck by how little resemblance Rabbinic Judaism had to Tanach. It was like different galaxies. I was also struck by the poor qulaity of writing throughout, and how sections from some books often practically mirrored sections from other books. One example of this was huge chunks of Divrei Hayamim and the historiography in Bamidbar are nearly identical. The more I read, the less I believed in TMS or in the divine origin of any books. I saw the books for what they so obviously were: works of primitive fiction written by barbarians at a time when civilization was in its earliest stages of infancy. The book isn't even wireh five minutes of anyone's time, let alone massive world relgions dedicated to its lies.

Oh and did I mention? I got tossed from yeshiva FOR LEARNING NACH!!

S. said...

Have a look here, and plug in the word Johnson:

I randomly came upon footnote 30 on page 158. You'll see why he's so popular.

OTD said...

Spinoza: >Holocaust of brain cells

Gut gezogt! It's been years since I debated the imbrcile Garnel, and I'm still trying to get those brain cells back.

G*3 said...

> It makes one wonder why the Charedi education system does not deem it necessary to deal with the DH. I guess they don't figure it to be as big a threat as evolution. (Also I guess they figure everyone knows about evolution anyway)

The Chareidi education system doesn’t deal with evolution either. If it’s mentioned at all, it’s something along the lines of, “Evolution says people came from monkeys, so why aren’t the monkeys in the zoo turning into people?” There are plenty of yeshivas and Bais Yaakovs in NY where they skip the section of the biology textbook that deals with evolution and students are told to guess on the regents.

Biblical criticism is treated the same way. It’s rarely mentioned, and when it is the conclusions are dismissed because “the goyim” don’t learn tanach with the midrashim and miforshim like we do.

The approach of the Chariedi education system to challenges to Yiddishkeit is to mostly pretend they don’t exist (and thereby avoid exposing the masses to dangerous ideas) and to occasionally ridicule pathetic strawman versions.

For me the path to skepticism was gradual and didn’t involve any grand philosophical problems or intellectual discoveries. It started with questioning things I learned that didn’t seem to make sense if thought of in a real-world context as opposed to the fairy-tale setting that seems to be the implicitly accepted backdrop for tanach. Because of my questions I was sent to talk to kiruv rabbonim. While I found some of their arguments impressive, others I found obviously illogical even as a naïve sixteen-year-old. That was when I discovered there were holes in Judaism. The more I learned, the bigger the holes got, until at some point there was nothing left.

OTD said...

Every time I wasn't to debate Garnel, I remember: this is the man that called 99.9999% of humanity Holocaust deniers!

The man is ill.

Shilton HaSechel said...


>I've seen it referred to positively many many times

It seems that frum Jews like quoting PJ because

A. He believes in a Jewish destiny and is clearly pro-Judaism (like you said)
B. He sounds authoritative and by extension makes one's history book/speech sound authoritative. I guess they think that if you only quote Religious Jews people will start to wonder how "academic" you are.

IMHO he is far from authoritative and his book (if I remember correctly) is full of inaccuracies that any Jew would pick up right away.

(One specific one I remember was his claim that the name Menachem was rarely used by Jews until the Zionists came along)

Also I doubt that most frummies let their kids read him.

M-n said...

For me it was discovering that evolution was a true fact of history. I don't remember any one book being the tipping point. I had been told my whole life that evolution wasn't true and when I learned that was really, really, really true it ignited a fire that burned the rest down. Part of that process was learning how we know what's true, something obviously subversive of Orthodox belief.

The book that did give me that shocked feeling was something Rabbi Louis Jacobs wrote about TSBP. It was one sentence but it was SO FUCKING OBVIOUS after I read it that I burned with shame and shock for not having realized it.

Shilton HaSechel said...


Kiruv-type people are sometimes brought (in more LW UO places) to speak at Yeshivas and Bais Yaakovs.

Also many of my Rabbis in Yeshiva would occasionally go on long diatribes during shiur to the effect of CARBON DATING IS FALSE! EVOLUTION WAS MADE UP BY ANTI-SEMITES!, THE FLOOD MESSED UP THE FOSSIL RECORD.

That type of (admittedly not formal) inoculation allows people to go into the real world without problems (until they encounter things that they are NOT familiar with)

Btw this is the funniest thing a friend of mine told me in Yeshiva about evolution:

"The most convincing argument against evolution is the fact that their are still monkeys around. If evolution is true then all the monkeys turned into people!"

M-n said...

"Btw this is the funniest thing a friend of mine told me in Yeshiva about evolution: "

I recently had a guy in shul tell me (with utter disdain in his voice) about how his rosh yeshiva said how stupid the scientists who believe in evoltution are: after all, Jews have been maal their sons for thousands of years and Jewish boys are still born with orlas. I was as polite as possible when I explained that his rosh yeshiva was an ignorant fool. Ok, I didn't say that (things like Lamarkism and the Weismann barrier were the actual content) but the lesson was clear. He was quiet after that, so I think he got it.

M-n said...

(What's ironic is that scientists in the 1800s did bring up Jewish circumcision in the debates about inheritance of acquired characteristics. IIRC it was in a response that called superfluous an experiment involving cutting off generations of mice's tails.)

S. said...

That's not ironic. It shows that at least he instinctively stumbled onto the ball field (albeit on the losing team). Of course the game is rounders, and it's 1830, not baseball and 2010.

M-n said...

S., you miss my point (or I was unclear). I meant to highlight his arrogance in assuming that scientists had never thought of his "chiddush," no doubt due to his parochial feelings towards milah. "If only they'd have a bit of Jewish knowledge they'd see how wrong they are." It's ironic that he's think he's so clever that he can come up with something that would upshlug the work of a century and half of tens of thousands of brilliant minds--when he clearly hasn't the faintest clue what they say!

Baruch Spinoza said...

"Yeah Spinoza (the real one) was ahead of his times. Imagine how much intellectual honesty it took for him to reject the Bible in his day and age. Imagine the amount of conditioning he had to overcome. Almost no one in Europe doubted the Bible but he just stuck to his guns. ":

The REAL ONE? Oh my science, ... what do you mean by that?! Are you trying to suggest that I am not the real one? You know, we skeptics have feelings too. And you just made me cry

Shilton HaSechel said...

lol fine Spinoza the EARLIER ONE

JewishGadfly said...

Yes, but where are the fossils? WHERE ARE THE FOSSILS?!

Ahem. All done.

For me, there were two simultaneous processes. One was a gradual process of realizing that the sureties I had been given were not at all sure (no, Rabbi X didn't actually know what he was talking about when he told me Spiritual Truth Y), and gradually becoming more open-minded within an Orthodox framework, until I found I was out of it. At the same time, I was learning more and more about science, philosophy, religion, and the world, which contributed heavily to this.

The other was a sense that my rabbis really had no right to try to guide my life as they had tried to, and a resulting loss of deference to their authority.

Zippy said...

"The book that did give me that shocked feeling was something Rabbi Louis Jacobs wrote about TSBP. It was one sentence but it was SO FUCKING OBVIOUS after I read it that I burned with shame and shock for not having realized it"

M-n, what was the sentence?

M-n said...

Sorry, I don't have the book (and neither does the Internet's usual sources) and I don't want to misquote it.

Zippy said...

M-n, do you know which book it was? I'm fine if you would just paraphrase.

Baal Habos said...

Shilton, I don't remember what specifically pushed my me over, just the general picture. Tidbits such as other Temples existed in the ANE with the same dimensions as ours, which I read in Return to Sodom and Gomorrah. See

S, same is true for Paul Johnson. While not outright heretical, he opened my eyes and gave me a less chareidi-ized pitcure of Jewish history as compared to "the History of the Jewish people" by Chaim Doc Rabinowitz which I read shortly before PJ.

S. said...

Re PJ, I'm just saying that its ironic. I suppose someone might reply that the book can be likened to the Para Aduma (metaher temeim, metameh tehorim). This is, of course, why it isn't assigned in high schools, while Berel Wein's is. The sort who like PJ, as I described, are or consider themselves mature adults. Likely the presence of a few contentions they can't agree with only lends it more credibility in their eyes. That is, they expect to not be able to agree with a "secular historian" and see such things as proof that he is in fact the real deal, but the book is filled with many pleasant surprises of the kind mentioned here, so it becomes a good source of edification.

The problem with PJ is the same problem with the works of many popular historians., and the cause of the many flaws of such works. Ultimately he is not a Jewish historian. He can't read the primary sources, which would be the very first thing focused on to dismiss him if his book wasn't so congenial.

Baal Habos said...

S, this morning thoughts of Paul Johnson filled my head. I wonder why :)

no one said...

The lack of morality in the frum world bothered me. But then I think the twisting of Talmudic halacha to fit modern halacha bothered me. Then I think it bothered me the fact that the Jewish people were surprised to hear about Sukot (at the begining of the second temple).

And yet my own happy experiences in yeshiva and in Israel made me wonder. I felt that one could still serve God through the myths of Torah. Myths that take a higher reality and make it concrete.
My feeling is that everything depends on serving God and serving God in the Jewish way means learning Talmud and trying to keep it as best as one can. But that it did discover is a bit dry and even in yeshiva I needed the encouragement of Rabbi Nachman. I think in the context of the ideas of Rebbi Nachman I can find a way and a place where it all makes sense.
The bottom line as well as I can see it is that every Jew should learn Gemara at least a little bit every day and be by Rebbi Nachman for Rosh Hashanah.

I don’t think being frum in the conventional way is good or in accord with the Talmud in except in a few rituals. It seems to me that Orthodox Judaism today is a perversion of the Talmud. Only in places where Talmud is studied seriously (i.e. Litvak yeshivot) can one taste a little bit of the real light of torah. Unfortunately most of those places (most Yeshivot) have been infected with modern chareidi or MO Judaism which is as far from Talmud as voodoo is from modern medicine.

anon said...

SH - Please stop giving aid to the enemy.

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