Saturday, 31 July 2010

Aristotle's God

No chiddush just getting my thoughts together (yes this is what I think about on my free time)

Aristotle's God (AG from now on) is pretty boring. It is actually surprising that any Jewish philosophers agreed to accept Aristotle's notion of God at all. AG has about as much theological significance as the theory of gravity and it's interesting how the completely "scientific" AG was adopted by philosophers of all 3 monotheistic religions.

AG is the first cause but only in sense of being"the ultimate goal of nature." AG by it's mere existence attracts nature sort of like gravity. All of nature "want to imitate" the perfection of AG and strives to "become like AG". It is only in this sense that AG is a cause by causing nature to gravitate towards it.

Aristotle's philosophy is focused on becoming. Everything is in a constant state of moving from potentiality into actuality. Aristotle needed some sort of unifying principle to explain this general trend. Why does nature move in the direction it does? Why do things move from potentiality into actuality. The principle to explain this is AG. A completely impersonal and overly scientific force of nature. This God is not a creator because the world was never created. The world has for all eternity been imitating AG who is not the source of being but rather it's inspiration and teleological principle.

AG is defined as "thought thinking about itself". To the philosopher Aristotle this was the ultimate being. It is ultimate in that it is pure actuality with no potentiality involved. (As opposed to pure matter without form which in theory would be pure potentiality) Because of the need to be pure act AG can never change. He (or more appropriately it) can only be a source of "movement" by being the perfect actuality thus attracting all potentiality in the world to BECOME more "actual".

Another qualification for AG to be a source of pure actuality is AG in not at all physical. In the Aristotelian world all being consists of matter which is roughly equivalent to physical existence, and form which is of a more "spiritual" nature. Matter is pure potentiality and only changes through it's accompanying form. Therefore if AG were to be at all made out of matter he/it would no longer be pure actuality but would be by definition potential. One has to wonder how much of the Rambam's insistence on an incorporeal God was Jewish and how much of it was Aristotelian.

Another consequence of AG's unchanging role is that he/it can know nothing besides himself. If AG were to know of the happenings in our little corporeal world that would mean that he has changed by finding out something that he did not know before. A transition from potentiality to actuality. All AG knows is his unchanging self. This is one of THE biggest problems with trying to reconcile AG with the Monotheistic God who is said to be involved with the deeds of mankind.

Now things start to get interesting when the scientific AG gets imported into Monotheistic theology. In the Middle Ages all three of the big Monotheistic religions at some point accepted Aristotle and his baggage i.e. AG. The ingenious methods used to reconcile a personal God with a "scientific" God are of course fascinating but that's not what I want to talk about right now.

The problem with AG is he is really not "religious". He is but a force of nature a pedantic philosophical abstraction used to explain order in the world. Some will argue that religion originally stemmed from just that - an attempt to explain the world. But perhaps there is a deeper dimension to religion that AG just could not provide.

Monotheistic religion is stuck in a paradox. On the one hand it wants to create a transcendent un-human God. A God who is unlike this world and is beyond nature in contradistinction to the pagan gods who were very much part of this world and were ruled to a certain extent by the laws of nature. This is the common ground Monotheism has with AG. On the other hand this Monotheistic God is interested in humans. He bothers to reveal himself at various points in history to mere mortal men. He is deeply concerned with man and takes a personal interest in man's various affairs here on earth. Hence the big tension in Monotheism in the one hand a pull to abstraction and on the other hand a pull to "personability" to closeness.

Classical Jewish philosophy (as well as Islamic and Christian) by adopting AG swung the pendulum to the one extreme of Monotheism i.e. the abstract facet. The consequence of this is much of the other facet had to give way. Maimonide's obsessive requirement to not describe God with positive attributes reflects this attitude. Can one love Maimonide's God? Can one "have a relationship" with him? The God of Aristotle is definitely similar to Monotheistic abstraction but perhaps takes it too far by eliminating a God of personality. A God who is merciful a God who goes to Galut with his children - Israel. Perhaps because it at little too far - rationalism did not ultimately survive the onslaught of Kabbalah which was largely victorious in the battle for the Jewish soul.

(thoughts and opinions on new blog format appreciated)

Friday, 30 July 2010


It looks like we're sticking with orange. Today I figured out why everyone uses blogger's default templates - because custom codes are a PAIN!

Should've started my blog on wordpress! Looks so much nicer with half the work.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

The Babel Fish, God, and a Survey

Okay first take this survey that someone doing a psychological study on Orthodox childhood experiences and how they impact going OTD and staying on, wanted me to "disseminate".

Now for something completely different the Babel Fish!:

(Watch Videos if you don't know what a Babel Fish is) (philistine!)

Oh and and here is the old version:

Orthodox: God can't give us absolute proof of his existence or of Judaism because then we would have no Bechira Chophshit (free will)

Let's say we discovered a Babel Fish. After many years of scouring the oceans scientists finally found a Babel fish i.e. a creature so bizarrely and purposefully designed that it is impossible for it to have arisen from mere natural selection. Let's just say we found such a thing and there was scientific consensus that this was definitive proof for intelligent design.

I'm sure that the Orthodox world would be up in arms! I mean here you have it! Something which destroys free will, a cornerstone of Judaism, gone! I'm sure all the kiruv organizations would be giving long seminars trying to show that the Babel fish is but a product of chance! I'm sure some Rabbi would be put in cherem for even admitting the existence of this peculiar creature. The atheists would be touting this as another proof against God. Fundamentalists of all creeds would be demanding that we "teach the controversy" in our schools and give equal treatment to the theory of how the Babel fish is just another product of natural evolution.

For some reason I doubt it would work out like that. But I guess if you say that "God can't/won't take away our free will" then that's how it should really play out. Right?


I always pronounced it "Bah-bel" they seem to pronounce it "Bay-bel". What is the correct pronunciation of Babel, as in Tower of Babel, in English?

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Hitchhiker's Guide to God

I should've posted this on Towel Day(I'm such a dork) but this will have to do. Here are some snippets from a talk Douglas Adams gave about God and various other random things.

Whether or not he's right I just think he has some interesting ideas:
Where does the idea of God come from? Well, I think we have a very skewed point of view on an awful lot of things, but let's try and see where our point of view comes from. Imagine early man. Early man is, like everything else, an evolved creature and he finds himself in a world that he's begun to take a little charge of; he's begun to be a tool-maker, a changer of his environment with the tools that he's made and he makes tools, when he does, in order to make changes in his environment. To give an example of the way man operates compared to other animals, consider speciation, which, as we know, tends to occur when a small group of animals gets separated from the rest of the herd by some geological upheaval, population pressure, food shortage or whatever and finds itself in a new environment with maybe something different going on. Take a very simple example; maybe a bunch of animals suddenly finds itself in a place where the weather is rather colder. We know that in a few generations those genes which favour a thicker coat will have come to the fore and we'll come and we'll find that the animals have now got thicker coats. Early man, who's a tool maker, doesn't have to do this: he can inhabit an extraordinarily wide range of habitats on earth, from tundra to the Gobi Desert - he even manages to live in New York for heaven's sake - and the reason is that when he arrives in a new environment he doesn't have to wait for several generations; if he arrives in a colder environment and sees an animal that has those genes which favour a thicker coat, he says "I'll have it off him". Tools have enabled us to think intentionally, to make things and to do things to create a world that fits us better. Now imagine an early man surveying his surroundings at the end of a happy day's tool making. He looks around and he sees a world which pleases him mightily: behind him are mountains with caves in - mountains are great because you can go and hide in the caves and you are out of the rain and the bears can't get you; in front of him there's the forest - it's got nuts and berries and delicious food; there's a stream going by, which is full of water - water's delicious to drink, you can float your boats in it and do all sorts of stuff with it; here's cousin Ug and he's caught a mammoth - mammoth's are great, you can eat them, you can wear their coats, you can use their bones to create weapons to catch other mammoths. I mean this is a great world, it's fantastic. But our early man has a moment to reflect and he thinks to himself, 'well, this is an interesting world that I find myself in' and then he asks himself a very treacherous question, a question which is totally meaningless and fallacious, but only comes about because of the nature of the sort of person he is, the sort of person he has evolved into and the sort of person who has thrived because he thinks this particular way. Man the maker looks at his world and says 'So who made this then?' Who made this? - you can see why it's a treacherous question. Early man thinks, 'Well, because there's only one sort of being I know about who makes things, whoever made all this must therefore be a much bigger, much more powerful and necessarily invisible, one of me and because I tend to be the strong one who does all the stuff, he's probably male'. And so we have the idea of a god. Then, because when we make things we do it with the intention of doing something with them, early man asks himself , 'If he made it, what did he make it for?' Now the real trap springs, because early man is thinking, 'This world fits me very well. Here are all these things that support me and feed me and look after me; yes, this world fits me nicely' and he reaches the inescapable conclusion that whoever made it, made it for him.
(I don't know if his explanation here will explain things like animism and fetishism which perhaps preceded the idea of the "creator God" and I also don't know if early religions all came to the conclusion that the world was made for man. It is my understanding that many ancient myths describe the gods creating men for their OWN use. But whatever)

He continues to argue that the idea of God might have some sort of purpose. In other words perhaps God/religion is a vital part of our society. He compares this to the institution of fiat money where we attribute meaning to worthless pieces of paper but for a good reason. Just like money is a useful fiction perhaps the idea of God also is.

He concludes:

So, my argument is that as we become more and more scientifically literate, it's worth remembering that the fictions with which we previously populated our world may have some function that it's worth trying to understand and preserve the essential components of, rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water; because even though we may not accept the reasons given for them being here in the first place, it may well be that there are good practical reasons for them, or something like them, to be there. I suspect that as we move further and further into the field of digital or artificial life we will find more and more unexpected properties begin to emerge out of what we see happening and that this is a precise parallel to the entities we create around ourselves to inform and shape our lives and enable us to work and live together. Therefore, I would argue that though there isn't an actual god there is an artificial god and we should probably bear that in mind. That is my debating point and you are now free to start hurling the chairs around!

I recommend reading the whole thing over here.

God's Last Message To His Creation: "and Oholibamah bore Jeush"

Imagine you are told you are going to get a message from God. This is it. God is finally going to make everything clear. God is finally going to give us a guide to life and explain to us the deep meaning of the universe. All doubts will be allayed all queries answered. This is going to be the biggest moment in human history! Crowds await in anticipation for the moment when God will reveal all.

And then God appears! And what does he do!?

He starts reading genealogical tables and construction plans for hours!

For a book which is purported to hold God's ultimate message to man and is supposed to be a "handbook" to life, the Torah is awfully prosaic.

For a book which is is supposed to "not be history" the Torah is awfully full of genealogy and minute historical details.

For a book which is supposed to be written by God, the Torah is rather underwhelming.

I asked a Rabbi once "Rabbi, for a book written by God the Torah is pretty ordinary. Shouldn't God be able to write books with more flash and flare?"

The Rabbi told me that the boring parts have deep messages and that a large portion of the Zohar is dedicated to expounding the seemingly useless bits such as the genealogy of Esav's descendants.

Yeah, if Moby Dick was considered holy I'm sure someone would be busy expounding that. Anything can be interpreted as an allegory or an esoteric message.

What should God's book look like? Well maybe it would actually tell us what the Hell is going on around here on Earth. And maybe explain to us some of the deepest questions that have been troubling man for ages. That would be pretty nice.

Instead it explains to us how big a certain tent should be.

But hey God has his reasons so maybe he just likes writing like a pedantic historian.


Or maybe the Torah is what it looks like: a history book with some laws thrown in.

Take your pick.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010


By tribalism I mean the fact that classical Judaism considers itself the religion of a certain people - not a universal religion.

The downside of this idea is that in some denominations of Judaism there is a clear attitude of superiority to non-Jews. The whole "chosen people" thing when taken too far can degenerate into a sort of racism. Taken to it's most extreme form some Chareidim consider "pure Jews" better than converts when it comes to arranging marriages etc. (Of course they won't admit it but everyone knows)

The upside is that in theory Judaism is more tolerant than other religions (at least the other Monotheistic ones). Christianity and Islam classically present themselves as religions incumbent on EVERY human being. Judaism on the other hand has a much more limited scope - it is only obligatory for Jews - and non-Jews only have to keep the 7 Noachide Laws. (Which are a breeze!)

So I don't know what's more harmful a universal religion which says - if you're not with us you're going to Hell! Or a national religion which says - if you're not part of our nation you're a donkey with the discharge of a horse!

Take your pick.

Monday, 26 July 2010

There is a God and he Believes In Argentina!

It's a little late but in honor of the world cup... hehehe

(Posted by Amitnira)

Rough Translation:

Hello do you hear me?
Hello Hello
Argentina do you hear me ?!

Yes yes it is me!

The moment is approaching and I wanted to tell you something...

It was me behind the goal post, against Holland, at the last moment in '78

It was me behind the crossbar against Yugoslavia in '90

Against Brazil it was me of course

Was there any doubt?

You might say "where were you against Germany and Sweden?"

What can I do? Satan also plays!

But it was not me who beat the three oranges!!!

It was not me with those amazing blocks!!!

Dear God!!! It was not me who made that amazing goal on a corner kick!

These were not the work of my hands!

It was not me who ran 50 meters with the ball, it was not me who left them behind forever!

Pray! Beseech! Swear!

Fill the the streets! the houses! the offices! And love these colors more than anything!

I believe in you!

SH: If I was an Argentinian I would probably find this pretty inspiring, since I'm not I think it's hell of a funny! The music made it perfect! The funny thing is this is exactly what countries used to believe back in the day. When two countries went to war, invariably both sides were CERTAIN God was on THEIR side.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

I Like Studying Judaism (as Wissenschaft)

"In an introduction to a lecture Scholem delivered at the seminary, Lieberman said that several years earlier some students asked to have a course here in which they could study kabbalistic texts. He had told them that it was not possible, but if they wished they could have a course on the history of kabbalah. For at the university, Lieberman said, 'It is forbidden to have a course in nonsense. But the history of nonsense that is scholarship.'"

From Jewish Literacy by Joseph Telushkin (p.249)

Gershom Scholem really got me interested in the study of ancient ideas and that quote from Lieberman also inspired me to take that sort of study seriously. Even if nobody, or very few, people believe these things nowadays I still find it fascinating to understand the different ideas that people have come up with, lived by and sworn by through the ages. Though I pretty much reject most of Jewish dogma, I still think the history and evolution of Jewish dogma is not only important to know if we are to understand our history and present, but is also just a very interesting subject.

Now none of this of course happened while I was still mentally trapped in Yeshiva. In Yeshiva I wasn't studying the evolution of ideas I was being taught eternal truths. I wasn't reading the Gemara as an object of history but as infallible dogma. It was only after I escaped that mindset, and finally accepted that Judaism is my history and not my belief that I began to enjoy studying it. (Before I began doubting Judaism I utterly loved learning but for somewhat different reasons)

So I don't know if any of you care but allow me to tell you a bit about my thoughts on the various subjects in Jewish studies.

Medieval Jewish Philosophy - I have a rather strange fascination with Aristotelian Physics and Metaphysics because it's so interesting that for hundreds of years THAT was the science, even though it was complete rubbish. Also the Medieval Jewish Philosophers deal with many of the BASIC themes that religious thinkers still struggle with today (e.g. Reason vs. Revelation)

Modern Jewish Philosophy- Even if you think it's all rubbish and that modern attempts at creating a synthesis of modernity and religion are ultimately futile, the struggle itself is very interesting. Religion is being challenged by modernity at every turn, how has/will it cope and will it survive the intellectual challenges to it's once unquestioned authority.

Kabbalah - Since I never learned it in my Litvish Yeshivas I find it interesting and don't associate it with ignorant Rabbis. (if I'd gone to a Chassidish Yeshiva I would doubtless hate it) It's mind boggling that this religion within a religion popped up out of nowhere in the Middle Ages (well not quite out of nowhere...)proceeded to vanquish rationalism, and remained dominant for almost 500 years. Also you have to admit that sefirot, klipot, gilgulim and merkavot are much more interesting than stolen tallitot and goring oxen.

Talmud - It's very hard for me to enjoy learning Talmud ever since I had it force fed to me for years by a bunch of ignorant dogmatic Rabbis. I basically associate it with everything wrong with Judaism. But sometimes I manage to forget my bad relationship with Gemara and treat it like an interesting, quaint historical artifact. (And also THE most influential book in Jewish history.) When the Gemara stops being YOUR laws and YOUR source of morality , then you can finally detach yourself from it's weirdness and have some sort of appreciation. (But admittedly, its kind of repetitive, it's not particularly well written, and is the last thing I want to study when there are so many other interesting things out there.)

Tanakh - It's history (sorta) but more importantly it's got some rather well written parts. I started appreciating the Prophets when I realized that the prophets weren't just trying to deliver messages but were trying to do so eloquently and poetically. Even if you disagree with their message they sure do a good job at expressing it. Same as Gemara - an integral part of my appreciation of it was when I stopped thinking of it as a moral and spiritual guide but rather a record of my people's history and culture.

I think that's about everything. What Jewish subjects do you like and why?

DH vs.TMS = False Dichotomy

If you want to watch the stupid people stop over at the Orthoprax Rabbi - really stupid people seem to simply abound there, probably because it's there 14th ikkar of emuna that someone educated in Judaism cannot become an atheist. Now we can't have that can we! It seriously saddens me to the depths of my heart that a people who produced Maimonides, Spinoza, and Einstein can produce people like this.

Anyway I started an argument with one of the folks there about the DH (why do I bother!)

One of the misconceptions frummies have about the DH is that if they somehow destroy the DH (which they have tried doing with limited success) then they are somehow out of the water, and they can celebrate their divine Pentateuch. Well folks, sorry to burst your bubble but there are many other options besides the DH and TMS. Let us analyze (b'kiztur nimratz) the different possibilities for arguments sake, of who/what/when wrote the Pentateuch and decide how far away the Orthodox are from proving their point. (The OJ apologists seem to thrive on false dichotomies)

1. TMS

God wrote Torah through Moshe

2. Mosaic authorship not divine

Okay just 'cuz Moshe wrote it doesn't mean it's from God. Ah the Kuzari proof!? Folks, people were illiterate back then so Moshe prolly could've wrote "I'm a pink monkey with long hair" and maybe 10 people would've been able to read it. (There are other objections but אין פה מקום להאריך) The prophecies in Devarim are not precise enough to "prove" that the Torah makes accurate predictions (Read Bondage of the Mind by R.D. Gold) Also I HOPE God didn't really want us mercilessly slaughtering Midianites and Amalekites, but hey that's just an evil heretic like me. REAL tzadikim obviously think that's A-OK.

3. Non-Mosaic authorship

Let's say ONE person wrote the whole thing. Okay. But it still is rather hard to claim that the book we have was written by a CONTEMPORARY of the events described. Besides referring to Moshe in the 3rd person, the Pentateuch talks as if it is describing events long past. I can't PROVE that to you but if you read it with an open mind it will immediately become apparent. I quote Spinoza on this over here.

4. Multiple Authorship

Let's say the whole JEPD thing is rubbish. You're STILL not outta the water. Because the Torah contradicts itself CONSTANTLY. Yes, yes, I know the Rabbis "solved" all the problems. But these are almost all FORCED EXPLANATIONS. And pashut peshat is that when the Torah says one thing and in another place says something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. That it wasn't written by one guy. (Unless God/Moshe was a little unbalanced of course)

5. the DH

Folks, the DH has what to stand on. Don't throw it out so quickly. (And it's not JUST about YHWH/ELOHIM that's JUST HOW IT STARTED!)

A Note About Breuer

Okay Rabbi Mordechai Breuer basically says: God writes AS IF many people wrote the Torah (to teach us some sort of lesson). This is roughly equivalent to Gosse and his Jewish fan Gottlieb who say that God creates/writes in tricky ways. If you believe in Breuer you might as well believe in Gosse and you might as well believe that Zaboomafoo (any old GH readers here?) created the world, wrote the Torah, and wrote Shakespeare too once he was at it.

A Note About Umberto Cassuto

Cassuto did not believe in the DH but believed in Multiple Authorship


So conventional Orthodox ideology, let's just say you have a way to go before you can "prove" your Divine Pentateuch Written by Moshe theory. Anyone who can CONVINCINGLY knock down ALL of the various possibilities above has a right to believe in OJ TMS. Everybody else is just following their faith semi-blindly. So STOP hating on the DH because even after you've jumped that hurdle you have a LOOOOOOOONG way to go.

Why do I Care?

I wouldn't mind if people hung onto their cherished Jewish beliefs despite the overwhelming challenges from modernity. HOWEVER, I cannot stand the maddening chutzpa of J-bloggers saying that "The DH is Dead" or "Only idiots believe in the DH" or "The DH makes no sense" I consider it an insult to my intelligence and more importantly an insult to the long and bitter inner conflict I went through trying to reconcile what I knew about Orthodoxy and Bible scholarship. It took me YEARS to admit that TMS was untenable. No schmuck is gonna come along and cavalierly call the end point of my inner struggle "nonsense" without a fight. So if any OJ'ers are reading this (all one of you if the poll on the side is correct) I would absolutely LOVE to here your response.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Ikkarim for Afterlife in the Rambam's Philosophy

No chiddush just gathering my thoughts ....

The Rambam believed that we gain immortality not through our good deeds or our Yirat Shamayim but rather through our intellect and through philosophic speculation about God (which has got to do with Medieval Aristotlean concepts of knowledge but maybe for another post)

The Rambam's difficulty was that he did not want a completely elitist religion and he needed a means by which ALL people could obtain immortality not JUST the clever people.

Therefore he came up with the idea of the Ikkarim of emuna. Now don't get me wrong the Ikkarim in the Rambam's philosophy serve other purposes, but one of the main purposes of the Ikkarim is to provide a means by which the common man can obtain a level of immortality.

Since the Rambam's immortality is obtained through a knowledge of God, the simple man can also participate in this to a certain extent by also having a sort of true knowledge of God. Although the simple believer will never reach the level of the philosopher he can get his "portion in the world to come" even if not on the same level as the philosopher's, by having correct knowledge of God. This is but another instance of how the Rambam attempts to reconcile the elitist God of the philosophers with the Monotheistic God of the common man.

The Ravaad in the Mishne Torah says about the Rambam's stress on the importance of knowing Go'd incorporeality - that many greater men than the Rambam believed that God has a body.

The Ravaad himself did not believe in God's corporeality, however he was defending the belief of the simple man from the Rambam's philosophical demands.

The Ravaad is coming from a completely different direction than the Rambam. The Rambam DEMANDS that even the common man has certain correct opinions about God - otherwise the simple believer will not obtain any sort of "Olam Haba".

However the Raavad is coming from the POV that an afterlife is not the result of Aristotlean speculation but rather from good deeds and fear of heaven. Therefore to him - the naive belief of the simple man is not as vital as it is in the Rambam's philosophy and therefore can be pardoned.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Can Halacha Be Binding If God Isn't Watching?

The official difference between Conservative/Orthodox Judaism and Reform Judaism is the former believes that halacha is in some way, shape or form is binding.

What I wonder is what does it mean "halacha is binding"

In secular law the only thing that really makes a law binding is the ability of the government to punish you for not keeping it. Would anyone take any secular law seriously without some sort of penalty or incentive?

So when it comes to religious law can one only speak of binding halacha in a meaningful way if one believes that God will punish you or reward you for keeping halacha? I think so. I see no possible way of speaking about binding Halacha without saying that God enforces it. In fact I think R' Albo said that the fundamental difference between religious law and secular law is that the former is only kept in public while the latter is ALWAYS kept due to our "knowledge" of God's omniscience and I guess vengeance.

What is the Conservative stance on afterlife and God's reward and punishment? I'm not sure. Anyone know? And am I correct in saying that religious law is basically meaningless without a belief in some sort of divine accountability?

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Some Tisha B'Av Bialik

I was looking through the Tisha B'Av liturgy and I realized that I just hate Eliezer Hakalir's piyutim. They're ... I dunno... just not good! Anyway I was thinking of this great Bialik poem which perfectly fits the spirit of the day (plus I found an English translation online!)If more piyutim were this good I might be able to pay some more attention on Tisha B'Av. Enjoy!

עַל הַשְּׁחִיטָה

שָׁמַיִם, בַּקְּשׁוּ רַחֲמִים עָלָי!

אִם-יֵשׁ בָּכֶם אֵל וְלָאֵל בָּכֶם נָתִיב –

וַ אֲ נִ י לֹא מְצָאתִיו –

הִתְפַּלְּלוּ אַתֶּם עָלָי!

אֲ נִ י לִבִּי מֵת וְאֵין עוֹד תְּפִלָּה בִּשְׂפָתָי,

וּכְבָר אָזְלַת יָד אַף-אֵין תִּקְוָה עוֹד –

עַד-מָתַי, עַד-אָנָה, עַד-מָתָי?

הַתַּלְיָן! הֵא צַוָּאר – קוּם שְׁחָט!

עָרְפֵנִי כַּכֶּלֶב, לְךָ זְרֹעַ עִם-קַרְדֹּם,

וְכָל-הָאָרֶץ לִי גַרְדֹּם –

וַאֲנַחְנוּ – אֲנַחְנוּ הַמְעָט!

דָּמִי מֻתָּר – הַךְ קָדְקֹד, וִיזַנֵּק דַּם רֶצַח,

דַּם יוֹנֵק וָשָׂב עַל-כֻּתָּנְתְּךָ –

וְלֹא יִמַּח לָנֶצַח, לָנֶצַח.

וְאִם יֶשׁ-צֶדֶק – יוֹפַע מִיָּד!

אַךְ אִם-אַחֲרֵי הִשָּׁמְדִי מִתַּחַת רָקִיעַ

הַצֶּדֶק יוֹפִיעַ –

יְמֻגַּר-נָא כִסְאוֹ לָעַד!

וּבְרֶשַׁע עוֹלָמִים שָׁמַיִם יִמָּקּוּ;

אַף-אַתֶּם לְכוּ, זֵדִים, בַּחֲמַסְכֶם זֶה

וּבְדִמְכֶם חֲיוּ וְהִנָּקוּ.

וְאָרוּר הָאוֹמֵר: נְקֹם!

נְקָמָה כָזֹאת, נִקְמַת דַּם יֶלֶד קָטָן

עוֹד לֹא-בָרָא הַשָּׂטָן –

וְיִקֹּב הַדָּם אֶת-הַתְּהוֹם!

יִקֹּב הַדָּם עַד תְּהֹמוֹת מַחֲשַׁכִּים,

וְאָכַל בַּחֹשֶׁךְ וְחָתַר שָׁם

כָּל-מוֹסְדוֹת הָאָרֶץ הַנְּמַקִּים.

On The Slaughter

Heaven, beg mercy for me! If there is
a God in you, a pathway through
you to this God - which I have not
discovered - then pray for me! For my
heart is dead, no longer is there prayer
on my lips; all strength is gone, and
hope is no more. Until when, how
much longer, until when?

You, executioner! Here's my neck - go
to it, slaughter me! Behead me like a
dog, yours is the almighty arm and the
axe, and the whole earth is my scaffold
- and we, we are the few! My blood is
fair game - strike the skull, and
murder's blood, the blood of nurslings
and old men, will spurt onto your
clothes and will never, never be wiped

And if there is justice - let it show
itself at once! But if justice show itself
after I have been blotted out from
beneath the skies - let its throne be
hurled down forever! Let heaven rot
with eternal evil! And you, the arrogant,
go in this violence of yours, live by
your bloodshed and be cleansed by it.

And cursed be the man who says:
Avenge! No such revenge - revenge for
the blood of a little child - has yet been
devised by Satan. Let the blood pierce
through the abyss! Let the blood seep
down into the depths of darkness, and
eat away there, in the dark, and breach
all the rotting foundations of the earth.

How Not to Read Kinnot

If you don't understand 'em you probably missed the point

The kinnot are not magical incantations even according to the most fundamentalist forms of Judaism. So if you have no idea what the hell the kinnot mean then you might as well close your kinnot book and spend your time doing something more worthwhile. Translations are little help because poetry gets lost in translation.

If you don't appreciate 'em you probably missed the point

The kinnot are supposed to be aesthetically pleasing and evocative. If you (like most people nowadays) do not appreciate poetry then you might as well read a holocaust book instead of wasting your time saying repetitive words. No one can force you to appreciate poetry you either do or you don't. The kinnot are clearly aimed at the former.

If you chant 'em you probably missed the point

Its poetry for crying out loud! Say it properly! Anyone who rushes through the kinnot is just being stupid.

If you say all of 'em you probably missed the point

There is no reason to say every kinnah! You choose one or two you like (I recommend Ibn Gabirol's "Shomron"), read it, appreciate it a bit and finish Tisha B'Av services at a reasonable time instead of 12 O'clock or something. Nobody, in most shuls, is even paying attention after the twentieth kinna! Whoever invented the siddur did a great disservice to the Jewish people by making people think that you have to read every word.

So what is the point that you're missing?

I'm not quite sure. If you're a believer then the point is that for some reason or other its a religious duty to feel bad about the destruction of the temple. The kinnot and here is the keyword are a mean to an end not an end themselves. If kinnot fail to be evocative to you then THERE IS NO POINT IN SAYING THEM.

Cummon Orthodoxy be a little creative! Why isn't there a booming industry of Tisha B'Av movies portraying some of our worst tragedies? I'm sure more people would get meaning out of a movie version of The Jewish Revolt than some old Hebrew poems. Where are Tisha B'Av novels and Tisha B'Av plays? Why are we so damn uncreative that the only medium of expression we make use of on this day are poems composed hundreds of years ago! A little variety and creativity!

For the rest of I guess there is little point, except maybe to muse about the long difficult history we Jews lived through and to appreciate the fact that despite it all we managed to not only survive but to thrive!

I for one will be reading Josephus and perhaps sit (on the floor of course!) appreciating some of the better poems in the Tisha B'Av liturgy.

An easy fast everyone!

Edit: My favorite kinna below, (it's so good that it gets said twice in the Tisha B'Av liturgy):

שׁוֹמְרוֹן קוֹל תִּתֵּן מְצָאוּנִי עֲוֹנַי
לְאֶרֶץ אַחֶרֶת יְצָאוּנִי בָנָי
וְאָהֳלִיבָה תִזְעַק נִשְׂרְפוּ אַרְמוֹנָי
וַתֹּאמֶר צִיּוֹן עֲזָבַנִי יְיָ

לֹא לָךְ אָהֳלִיבָה חֲשׁוֹב עָנְיֵךְ כְּעָנְיִי
הֲתַמְשִׁילִי שִׁבְרֵךְ לְשִׁבְרִי וּלְחָלְיִי
אֲנִי אָהֳלָה סוּרָה בָּגַדְתִּי בְקָשְׁיִי
וְקָם עָלַי כַּחְשִׁי וְעָנָה בִי מִרְיִי
וּלְמִקְצָת יָמִים שִׁלַּמְתִּי נִשְׁיִי
וְתִגְלַת פִּלְאֶסֶר אָכַל אֶת פִּרְיִי
חֲמוּדוֹתַי הִפְשִׁיט וְהִצִּיל אֶת עֶדְיִי
וְלַחֲלַח וּלְחָבוֹר נָשָׂא אֶת שִׁבְיִי
דֹּמִּי אָהֳלִיבָה וְאַל תִּבְכִּי כְּבִכְיִי
אֲנִי נַדְתִּי לִרְחוֹק וְדַי לִי זֹאת דַּיִּי
שְׁנוֹתַיִךְ אָרְכוּ וְלֹא אָרְכוּ שָׁנָי

מְשִׁיבָה אָהֳלִיבָה אֲנִי כֵן מָרַדְתִּי
וּבְאַלּוּף נְעוּרַי כְּאָהֳלָה בָּגַדְתִּי
דֹּמִּי אָהֳלָה כִּי יְגוֹנִי פֻקַּדְתִּי
נָדַדְתְּ אַתְּ אַחַת וְרַבּוֹת נָדַדְתִּי
הִנֵּה בְיַד כַּשְׂדִים פַּעֲמַיִם נִלְכַּדְתִּי
וּשְׁבִיָּה עֲנִיָּה לְבָבֶל יָרַדְתִּי
וְנִשְׂרַף הַהֵיכָל אֲשֶׁר בּוֹ נִכְבַּדְתִּי
וּלְשִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה בְּבָבֶל נִפְקַדְתִּי
וְשַׁבְתִּי לְצִיּוֹן עוֹד וְהֵיכָל יִסַּדְתִּי
גַּם זֹאת הַפַּעַם מְעַט לֹא עָמַדְתִּי
עַד לְקָחַנִי אֱדוֹם וְכִמְעַט אָבַדְתִּי
וְעַל כָּל הָאָרֶץ נָפוֹצוּ הֲמוֹנָי

הַחוֹמֵל עַל דַּל חֲמוֹל עַל דַּלּוּתָם
וּרְאֵה שִׁפְלוּתָם וְאֹרֶךְ גָּלוּתָם
וְרוֹמֵם קַלּוּתָם וְהָקֵל סִבְלוּתָם
רְפָא נָא אֶת שִׁבְרָם וְנַחֵם אֲבֵלוּתָם
כִּי אַתָּה שִׂבְרָם וְאַתָּה אֱיָלוּתָם
חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כִּימֵי קַדְמוֹנַי
וְלֹא תֹאמַר צִיּוֹן עֲזָבַנִי יְיָ

Monday, 19 July 2010

Tisha B'Av

I don't want a restored monarchy

I don't want another big slaughter house

I don't want to live in a theocracy

I keep reading and hearing the most delusional things about the temple era from religious Jews.

"There was achdut (unity) then"

"There was justice then"

"There was everything good you can think of back then!"

Hmmmm well....
Let's just say it wasn't exactly heaven on Earth back in the day. Only someone who has never touched a history book (or a Tanakh!) can seriously say that they want to "go back to the way things were"

People have a sort of idealized version of what things were like when the Temple was standing so let's set some things straight.

First Temple Era

If the prophets are any guide then this must have been the most blood drenched, pestilence ridden, sexually decadent epoch in human history. I'm not quite sure why anyone would want to return to the way things were in the First Temple Era when autocratic kings slaughtered dissidents and barely anyone was interested in keeping the Law of Moshe.

Second Temple Era
Okay at least there's no idol worship. YAY! And everyone is keeping the Torah law more or less so this perhaps is a more inspiring time period for religious Jew. Wrong! Vicious politics, fluctuating regimes, various massacres and internecine warfare characterized this era of Judaism. Not much of a golden age if you ask me.

So when people say things like "well we pray for the return of the Beit Hamikdash so there will be once again achdut in klal yisrael!" I make a sarcastic snort at this lack of historical knowledge.

So nu what's it all about?

These sort of things often tempt me to throw up my hands in despair in the face of the ubiquitous stupidity. However perhaps we can understand Tisha B'Av in a less fundamentalist manner. The best I can come up with, , is we pray for the myth (not meant derisively at all) of the Temple Era. In other words the reality is the Temple Era was not really special at all. People got along with their lives pretty much the same Temple or not (besides Pesach barbecues and all) However in the Jewish collective memory the Temple Eras have been remembered as an idyllic age an age of peace, justice and all the other good things all represented by this one building - The Beit Hamikdash. This is the myth of the Beit Hamikdash and the Temple Era and in a sense it is more real than the actual facts.

Every time a Jew was persecuted or suffered in our long and arduous history s/he has longed for the lost age of the Temple. To the oppressed Jew the flawed diaspora was merely a stop off point, a minor interruption in the grand plan. All would be set right and returned to "it's former glory." Was there a former glory? Not at all. But the idea of a long lost age became a reality in the memory of the Jewish people. Just as we are affected by the real events in our history so too we are affected by the myths in our national memory.

The idea of a mere return to a once glorious and ideal age is a very meaninful idea. And is a worthwhile symbol to hold onto. Symbols need not be real in the historical sense - as long as they continue to give us meaning today they are fictions worth retaining. (EXCEPT WHEN YOU'RE STUDYING HISTORY! THEN MYTHS GET YOU NOWHERE!) It is the false - yet beautiful memory of a once perfect age that has contributed to Jewish survival throughout the eras and has culminated in the Jewish state (which I, Zionist that I am, think is a mostly good thing)

So, if you insist on crying on Tisha B'Av cry for the myth of a glorious age and pray that that symbol of a lost past will one day become a modern reality. But for God's sake if I hear one more inane comment about "if only we had a big slaughterhouse!" and continue to hear people taking the notion of a "Perfect Temple Era" seriously, I might just lose my stomach for the seuda hamafseket.

(Hopefully you'll focus on important things like social justice and peace instead of rubbish like a theocracy and a house where a ravenous YHWH can finally get some food to eat, unfortunately the kinnot seem to focus on many of those themes)

Once I'm at it let me rant a little more about Tisha B'Av

Anyone who says that Tisha B'Av is the day we mourn ALL Jewish tragedies is spewing BS. How many kinnot are about the frikkin' temple? Like 40 or 50.

And how many about the Holocaust, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, The Takh V'Tat massacres, the progroms and all the other bad things that have happened to us? Maybe like 5 or 6.

Gimme a break Tisha B'Av is about the temple and almost nothing else.

And my final rant:

Who's fault is it that the Temple got destroyed? Hmmm? Maybe it had a little something to do with the religious fundamentalist zealots who deluded themselves into thinking they would beat the Roman Empire in a revolt. Nah that can't be it it's all the Romans fault. Evil Romans! How dare you put down a revolt in one of your provinces! Have you no heart O Romans? Why are you so cruel to us poor little Jews?

At least that seems to be the theme of most kinnot - Evil, Barbaric, Heartless Romans mercilessly attack quiet, innocent, little Jews.

I would much rather mourn something that wasn't our fault.

Have a "Happy" Tisha B'av! And try not to asphyxiate from the fumes of the people who took the nine days too seriously.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

There is a Hell In Judaism

Picture: The Valley of Hinnom from where the Hebrew Hell - "Gehennom" gets its name

Even if its a little less eternal than the Christian Hell Judaism still has a Hell. Fine it's more of a purgatory but its still a place where "the bad folks go when they die ... a land of fire and fry."

Wherever I go I meet Jews saying "there is no Hell in Judaism". To which I say "What Talmud have you been reading?"

In the Tanakh There is no real Hell of sinners burning (there is sinner burning - just not in a special place) there is merely some sort of gloomy underworld/afterlife which we hear very little about but apparently you can summon dead prophets from there. However the Tanakh is not Judaism. Judaism is the Tanakh+Talmud. Biblical religion was a lot different than Judaism.

Reform Judaism (correct me if I'm wrong) does not believe in Hell. But that does not mean that there is "no Hell in Judaism" it simply means "We Reform Jews don't currently believe in Hell even though our ancestors did."

I'm not such a fan of Hell because it is clear the the Rabbis of the Gemara took it literally (Gehennom- the Hebrew word for Hell is a location outside of Jerusalem where the entrance of Hell is supposed to be) and because I'm skeptic.

Maybe I'm misreading the situation but it seems that more modern thinking Jews find the idea of Hell rather unpalatable and therefore have decided that "it's not part of Judaism." If this is indeed the case then I have to disagree with this "whitewashing" of our religion. One should not be embarrassed that our ancestors believed in these things even if we don't, and say things like "There is no Hell in Judaism" when there clearly was.

The words of Achad Ha'am come to mind.

In his article נחלת אבות (Inheritance of Fathers) He discusses an article written by a contemporary reformer who said that we must repudiate the Shulkhan Aruch, because it contains superstitions and magic (which it does) and he says that we must "ולהכריז בפה מלא ובכל עת, שאין זו תורתנו". ("announce with a full mouth at every time THIS IS NOT OUR TORAH")

He says:

היה הספר המתאים ביותר לרוח עמנו לפי מצבו וצרכיו באותם הדורות שקבּלוהו עליהם ועל זרעם. ואם נכריז עליו "שאין זו תורתנו", תהיה הכרזתנו מתנגדת אל האמת. כי אמנם זו היא תורתנו בצורה שקבּלה בהכרח בסוף ימי הבינַים, כמו שהתלמוד הוא תורתנו בצורה שקבּלה בסוף ימי הקדם, וכמו שהמקרא הוא תורתנו בצורה שקבּלה בהיות העם עוד חי חיים לאומיים בארצו; שלש אלה יחד אינן אלא שלש נקודות שונות בדרך התפתחותו של עצם אחד – של רוח האומה הישׂראלית – בהסכם למצבו וצרכיו בתקופות שונות.

(The Shulchan Aruch) was the most fitting book for the spirit of our nation according to its situation and needs in those generations when it was accepted. And if we declare “This is not our Torah” our declaration will be untrue. Because this is indeed our Torah in the form that it was accepted at the end of the Middle Ages … (The Torah, Talmud and Shulchan Aruch) are three different points in the evolution of one thing-of the spirit of the Jewish nation-in accordance with its situation and needs in different eras.

So even if you are a Reform Jew or a skeptic or whatever, you should not say there is no Hell in Judaism when in fact there historically is. Just because you don't like the idea, and don't believe in it does not mean that you have to whitewash the less palatable bits of our past. One can have his/her own modern views without pretending that the past did not happen. Judaism is more than just your current Jewish belief (whatever that mey be) - it is a long tradition of many very different views and ideas which all are included in "Judaism". So there is a Hell in Judaism even if you practice a form of Judaism which does not have a Hell.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Man is not the Purpose of the Universe According to the Rambam

I was reading the Moreh Nevuchim and I got to this chapter(Part III Chapter 25) where the Rambam explains that it is silly to say that God had no purpose in creation and surely God had something in mind even if we're not actually sure what it is.

Then he says something interesting:
Know that the difficulties which lead to confusion in the question what is the purpose of the Universe or of any of its parts, arise from two causes: firstly, man has an erroneous idea of himself, and believes that the whole world exists only for his sake; secondly, he is ignorant both about the nature of the sublunary world, and about the Creator's intention to give existence to all beings whose existence is possible, because existence is undoubtedly good.
Wow I always was taught that Judaism believes that the world was created for man. Does the Rambam disagree?

Basically the Rambam ends off with a תיקו and says God is wise, so the universe must have a purpose, but we don't really know what it is.


The Rambam discusses this in more detail in Part III Chapter 13

But of those who accept our theory that the whole Universe has been created from nothing, some hold that the inquiry after the purpose of the Creation is necessary, and assume that the Universe was only created for the sake of man's existence, that he might serve God. Everything that is done they believe is done for man's sake; even the spheres move only for his benefit, in order that his wants might be supplied . . .

. . .on examining this opinion as intelligent persons ought to examine all different opinions, we shall discover the errors it includes. Those who hold this view, namely, that the existence of man is the object of the whole creation, may be asked whether God could have created man without those previous creations, or whether man could only have come into existence after the creation of all other things. If they answer in the affirmative, that man could have been created even if, e.g., the heavens did not exist, they will be asked what is the object of all these things, since they do not exist for their own sake but for the sake of something that could exist without them?

[SH: Think about the modern question of why did God waste so much time making everything evolve slowly if man is the ultimate purpose of the universe]

I consider therefore the following opinion as most correct according to the teaching of the Bible, and best in accordance with the results of philosophy; namely, that the Universe does not exist for man's sake, but that each being exists for its own sake, and not because of some other thing. Thus we believe in the Creation, and yet need not inquire what purpose is served by each species of the existing things, because we assume that God created all parts of the Universe by His will; some for their own sake, and some for the sake of other beings, that include their own purpose in themselves. In the same manner as it was the will of God that man should exist, so it was His will that the heavens with their stars should exist, that there should be angels, and each of these beings is itself the purpose of its own existence. . .

. . .You must not be mistaken and think that the spheres and the angels were created for our sake. Our position has already been pointed out to us, "Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket" (Isa. xl. 15). Now compare your own essence with that of the spheres, the stars, and the Intelligences, and you will comprehend the truth, and understand that man is superior to everything formed of earthly matter, but not to other beings; he is found exceedingly inferior when his existence is compared with that of the spheres, and a fortiori when compared with that of the Intelligences.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The Orthodox Theory of Everything

Kid: "Rebbi what is our purpose in this world?"

Rabbi:Well we are here to gain schar (reward) for olam haba(the world to come). God is omnibenevolent therefore he created a situation where mankind kind can receive eternal reward."

Kid: But why do we have to work for our reward? Why can't God just give it to us for free?

Rabbi: "Excellent question! The Ramchal (Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato) explains that God cannot just give us reward for free. God wants to give us the maximum possible reward. In life one gets more enjoyment from things that are earned as opposed to things granted for free. If God were to reward us undeservedly we would feel embarrassed at such utterly gratuitous kindness. This idea is called Nahama DeKisufa (Bread of Embarrassment)

Therefore God made olam hazeh (this world) as a place where we can work to obtain our Gan Eden and be satisfied with the knowledge that we have truly earned our place there."

Most, people are satisfied with this explanation and feel that they have just heard something very profound. But let's go a little further

Rabbi, I have another question, God is omnipotent right?

Rabbi: Of course!

Kid: Well, in that case why didn't God excersize his omnipotence and create humans who didn't feel embarassed at undeserved reward. Your entire argument essentially puts a limitation on God no?

Rabbi: Ermmm....

This is a frequently used argument in the Yeshiva world. I have never heard anyone Modern Orthodox use this "argument" but maybe I've just been fortunate to be shielded from such stupidity from supposedly "Modern" people.

I'm not sure if the Ramchal was the first to formulate this argument. Does anybody know who originally came up with the idea of Nahama DeKisufa?

Have I misunderstood Nahama DeKisufa? The above was how it was presented to me (and I think it is how the Ramchal presents it)

The moral of the story is religious people have no idea what's going on anymore than non-religious people. It would be great if more religious people admitted to the limitations of their knowledge.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The Two Types of Religious Apologetics

There are two things that religious apologists need to deal with

1. How to prove their religions

Most religions struggle with the fact that they have very little evidence of the divine in general and their specific revealed religion in particular. I think this has become a more acute problem in the modern era when atheism has become a rather legitimate intellectual position. In the Middle Ages you basically just had to show how stupid the other religions were and then your religion won by default. (Think Kuzari) Everyone basically assumed that A. There was a God and B. He had something to say. It was merely a question of figuring out which of the books was REALLY from God. Nowadays even if you believe in a God which is already a rather difficult thing to prove, what's stopping you from believing in Deism or a sort of God of the scientists? In short why is it more logically sensible to believe in MY religion rather than NOTHING.

It's basically impossible to prove revealed religions. And in our science saturated age the religious person is faced with the difficult problem of how to justify holding onto his or her religion when he or she has already accepted a more skeptical approach when it comes to other fields of inquiry.

2. How to deflect direct challenges to the religion

Atheism challenges religion in general. Evolution challenges Genesis and the primacy of man. Textual criticism, modern morality and history challenge the divinity of the Bible. Much of apologetics is dedicated to deflecting these challenges to religion. Some apologetics are more successful than others. But the fact is that every religion -no matter how ridiculous-manages to cope. No religion AFAIK has ever died out from modernity.

I find it really irksome when religious Jews scoff that skeptics are just ignorant of their apologetics and that everyone must realize that all the questions to Judaism have been answered. Yes they all have been "answered" but one must realize that the second form of apologetics is only really meaningful if one accepts the religion in question as true in the first place. If all religions are able to answer questions posed to them then "your answers" are only better if your religion is somehow more true than theirs which brings us back to square one and the question of how do you "prove" or even tip the scales in favor of your religion?

My impression from my limited knowledge of the subject is that most apologetics in the Jewish world and probably in other religions are of the second variety. Maybe its because the "proving" a religion is too hard. Maybe its because most writers of apologetics don't have any real doubts. I don't know. The problem is that the second type of apologetics is predicated on the first.

If anyone were to prove Judaism or any other religion or even demonstrate the likelihood of it being true then the second form of "deflectory" apologetics would be justified. But since the best Judaism has is the Kuzari proof which is merely an opiate for the Jewish masses, we haven't even been able to get off the ground.

Anybody involved in deflective apologetics is already assuming their religion is true. And since no one has very satisfactorily succeeded in the modern era with the first type of apologetics assuming your religion is true is rather unjustified logically speaking.

So perhaps the difference between the deflective apologist and the skeptic is not so much the quality of the apologetics themselves as much as the fact that the one assumes the religion to be true from the onset and the other doesn't.

The main skeptic argument is not any explicit attack on religion but rather the rather damning lack of evidence in support of religion in general not to mention MY religion.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Torah MiSinai: Different Views As To How "Divine" It All Is

Oh by the way in case you don't all know Xgh has started his fifth (i think)blog. It's called Ortho Modern Dox (Because he's Ortho-prax with Modern "Doxes")This time it ain't anonymous (was there anyone who didn't know who he was already?) It should be enjoyable and I wish him Haztlacha Rabba!

A while back commenter J on Modern Orthoprax (that blog hasn't YET been deleted but I'm not holding my breath given GS's blogocidal tendencies) summed up the different views on TMS rather well here is his comments mixed together with Moshe's comments with a little bit thrown in from THIS great website. Feel free to add your opinions about different views and tell me if I missed or misunderstood any views. Enjoy!

1) TMS is true (Orthodox - use Breuer/Etshalom/Slifkin to make it work - Orthodox halacha is obligatory).

SH: Well you know all the problems with this no need to elaborate. (But I will in the future as I have in the past) Let's just put it this way it is highly unlikely that God wrote our text assuming God writes perfect books because sorry folks the Pentateuch is cool and everything but it's not really perfect. Also out of all of the options this is the only one which MUST reject literary analysis of the Torah.

2) TMS is true, but the text we have is not pristine. It represents a reconstruction of the original text by Ezra. This explains some divergences between the oral law and our written text. The oral law better reflects the pristine text [R. D. Weiss-Halivni].

SH:Sounds a bit like a conspiracy theory to me. To be fair I've never read Halivni's book on the matter. From what I understand this approach basically says the DH = Ezra struggling to put together a bunch of fragments to reconstruct the Torah.Kind of misleading of God to let the REAL Torah get lost Oh Well!

3) TMS is true, in the sense that the there was a divinely revealed content which Moshe, and other prophets, wrote down. But they were not just "secretaries taking dictation". The personality and the concerns of the prophet are reflected in the text. Thus, the Torah contains both a human and a divine element, inextricably linked. [R. AJ Heschel].

SH: I kinda like this (when I'm in a less skeptical mood). As a matter of fact I personally know some of the Rabbis at Yeshivat Maaleh Gilboa (a LWMO Yeshiva in Israel) basically advocate this (although I doubt in public).
Its the best you'll get Orthodox Jews to admit to.

4) TMS isn't literally true, but the Torah is still divinely inspired, and therefore halacha-lite obligates us, except when we don't like it. (Conservative).

Subcategories based on what "divine inspiration" is

A)Divine Inspiration means God kind of puts thoughts into peoples heads and the person writes down his interpretation.These people claim
that God inspired human beings with a specific message.

SH: I think this approach is ultimately empty semantics. Divine inspiration is one those phrases which means very little. Think of DovBear's recent rant against people discussing "spirituality". What the hell is spirituality and what the hell is "divine inspiration." Sounds like schizophrenia to me. On the other hand I guess God talking in the Orthodox way is also kind of meaningless (since God is probably incorporeal and what not)

B)Divine Inspiration means people wrote down what they thought about this God who kept appearing to them. The only inspiration is that works written by these people who had some connection to God are worth listening to because these prophets used to chat to God. These people maintain that God inspired people with His presence by coming into contact with them, but He did not reveal concrete instructions through the inspiration.

SH: This I can sorta deal with. God doesn't write books people do. How people are "encountering" still God beats me though.

5) TMS isn't true at all, but the decision of Jews to accept the 'four assumptions' was divinely guided, and therefore the text has magic fairy dust sprinkled on it to make it retroactively divine. (Kugel)

SH: Kugel basically argues with people like Nahum Sarna and Umberto Cassuto who go to great lengths to explain how every Biblical story has some sort of ethical message. Kugel basically says that that is complete rubbish and the stories in the Bible have Zero inherent ethical message and are purely etiological. He however says that these stories underwent some sort of transformation when later interpreters began treating them like ethical/meaningful stories. (Pixie dust basically)

The last five are all well and good except there is zero logical reason to believe any of them over 6 except that you feel like it.

6) TMS isn't true, but is rather a record of Jews reaching out to God, and has some divine qualities. We can take what we like, and abandon what we don't.

SH:Hmmmm might as well just go with 7

7) TMS is not true. There's no reason to think that there is a celestial being who cares particularly about humans.

SH: I gotta say if you gotta decide logically between a Deist God and a Monotheistic intervening God who slips books into people's hands and thoughts into people's heads I'd go with the former but that's just my opinion if you feel that God is immanent in your life then gezunte heit think what you want (And that's assuming there is ANY God.)

If you decide that TMS is in fact absolutely completely not true there are various ways of treating the Bible

1. The Tanach is nasty, evil, hokum, which is immoral and still makes the world a worse place - we should keep telling everyone this till they realise we are right (New Atheists).

SH:These guys just annoy me. The Bible is no more "evil" than any other ancient text. People back in the day were just violent blood thirsty bastards PERIOD. It only becomes "evil" when people nowadays take it too seriously. Dawkins and Hitchens should be busy fighting fundamentalism not religion. I guess they figure the two go hand in hand.

2. Tanach is a product of its time, represents great literature (in part), nothing Godly about it, but it is, for Jews, a record of their history and culture, therefore it should be preserved and celebrated without informing any of our moral decisions. (Humanistic Judaism).

SH:Amen! Basically Secular Cultural Zionism.

3. Tanach is completely irrelevant to my life, I have the same feelings about it as I do about the New Testament. Completely man made, but why should I care? (Most others).

SH: I think the Bible is pretty interesting but that's just me. (Except for Iyov!!! Iyov is just depressing AND boring and once I'm at it Eicha is pretty boring as well as Tehillim)

Well thats a summary maybe I'll go B'Iyun one day if I can keep my head in one place.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

A Stocking Full of Excrement

That's what Napoleon said about Talleyrand in one of his imperial rages

It's also what I think about the upcoming Torah of Science and Chareidi English writing in general

Artscroll and similar publishers specialize in taking fundamentalist ideology and dressing it up with Western words. The idea is to present rather silly ideas and beliefs in a dignified manner using good English. The population being targeted, I assume, is people who are educated and are turned off by the half literate, barely English speaking leaders of the Chareidi world. Most people with a college education will run away from people who say things like "stupid goyish scientific narishkeit." Educated people will be much more receptive to things like "the prevailing mistaken scientific ideology"

Its interesting that all it takes for some people to be convinced is good English and throwing in lots of nice big scientific sounding words.

Artscroll is clever. They know that you're not going to make Chareidi BT's out of educated people unless you express stupid things eloquently. You gotta say juxtapose instead of semichas haparshiyos, and you gotta say hermeneutical principles instead of Yud Gimel Middos. The only way to make crazy Chareidism into something palatable is by dressing up the excrement in a nice silk stocking.

It's simply amazing how influential someone with good English can be. It says absolutely nothing about your intelligence yet makes you appear to the masses as extraordinarily educated. Throw in a British accent and you're good to go.

I predict that the Torah of Science will be much different than the earlier "rebuttal" of R' Slifkin in Chaim B'Emunasam. Chaim B'Emunasam was aimed at Yeshivish people who might be tempted by R' Slifkin's "evil ways". The Torah of Science, I predict, will be written in flawless English and will make lots of (selective) references to science and throw in some Rishonim also while avoiding using provocative medieval sounding words like "heresy, and apikosus" and will instead say things like "undermines basic principles of Judaism."

Thats the scariest thing the Chareidim who speak like educated people yet believe in the weirdest things. It almost makes one want to encourage the lack of secular education in Yeshivot lest the Chareidim learn "fancy" words like exegesis! (Oy vey!)

Don't be fooled by Rabbi Meiselman's lectures which make him sound like a semi-literate kollel guy. This book, I believe, will be different and try to be as "scientific" as possible.

Should be fun to watch

Friday, 9 July 2010

Cognitive Dissonance Alert

Rabbi Slifkin has recently made us aware of a new book to be published by Rabbi Meiselman of ToMo called the Torah of Science.

I never realized how virulent this guy was in his attacks of R Slifkin until I saw a link to a letter R Slifkin wrote to him where he quotes many of his speeches. Check it out here. The quotes from this Rabbi who is generally considered rather "modern" in the Chareidi world because he has a Phd. in mathematics is so dissapointing as to almsot make one cry.

But that's not what I'm posting about. What I'm posting about are some of the comments on Rationalist Judaism about the book. To his credit Rabbi Slifkin usually does not speak with such blatant cognitive dissonance but some of his commenters sure do let's take a look and then watch me go XGH on them and "tweek" them a bit.
That being said, his book is just more of the same ideas that some Rabbis put forward. Whoever reads what he has to say most likely already agrees with him. People who don't read him most likely already disagree with him.I am curious at how much he will say that is easily refutable, semi-intellectual and, even, correct. But in truth, there is no waaaay I am wasting my time reading something like that. If I want to learn about science and Torah I will read something written by people who do research in science as well as Torah.
wave the skeptic wand and pretend I am reviewing a book defending TMS...

That being said, his book is just more of the same ideas that some Rabbis put forward. Whoever reads what he has to say most likely already agrees with him. People who don't read him most likely already disagree with him.I am curious at how much he will say that is easily refutable, semi-intellectual and, even, correct. But in truth, there is no waaaay I am wasting my time reading something like that. If I want to learn about history and Torah I will read something written by people who do research in history, and archaeology as well as Torah.
Hmmm awfully similar no? Next...
Those who believe the world is literally 5770 years old and that this belief is a fundamental principle of Judaism will hail his book as a great work of religious literature, a strong defence of authentic Torah Judaism, blah, blah.
Those of us with our brains turned on to a higher voltage than that will either ignore the book (given that I have lots of other stuff to read) or write eloquent rebuttals (that would be you) that will amount to preaching to the choir.

and now a little wave of the skeptic wand and once again pretend I'm reviewing a books on TMS...

Those who believe that the Torah was litterally written by Moshe and that this belief is a fundamental principle of Judaism will hail this book as a great work of religious literature, a strong defence of authentic Judaism, blah, blah.
Those of us with our brains turned on to a higher voltage than that will either ignore the book (given that I have lots of other stuff to read) or write eloquent rebuttals (that would be you) that will amount to preaching to the choir.

The resemblance is uncanny!

Sorry I couldn't resist.

Read the comments over here:

And a Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Another Skeptic's Story: A Guest Post

SH: A month or two ago I asked anybody interested to submit their own "Pandora's Box" story. A description of those moments when the sturdy faith of your childhood began to falter, what caused your "eyes to open", and how did you deal with it. If anyone else is interested in submitting any sort of "skeptic story" (or anything interesting about Judaism, skepticism, or religion) just email me at Now without further ado....

A Guest Post By Anonymous:
I’m sixteen years old, and I get my first explanation as to why I have doubts. I'm at the shteeble, and me being the masochist that I am, pick out a chassidishe mussar sefer from the bookshelf, and leaf through it until I find the section that discusses masturbation. Along with the usual warning, that each wasted seed creates a black demon that attacks the soul after death, a new tidbit catches my eye: it weakens one's Emuna. So not only am I causing myself to get bad breath, go blind, and die early, at which I'll be kindly greeted with 845 billion demons (rough calculation, assuming I never masturbate again), but it's also fucking up my faith. Years later, one of my psychologists changes it to an intelligent, humane argument: Cognitive Dissonance. The ego, masturbation, and God can't all fit in the same mental space, hence God has to go, so the ego can live on. Trust me though, it was the ego that got shafted; not for nothing was I a top learner and quite the frummie.

It's eight years later, and my darling wife sends me to the shrink. Not that she knows about the masturbation, Heaven Forbid, but she notices that something's amiss. To my great surprise, my unhappiness isn't normal, and the masturbation isn't the cause of it either. I'm suffering from Dysthymia (low-grade depression), which apparently started when I was a young teen.

While my mental health improves over the years, and the sexual addiction subsides, the sickness of doubt doesn't cease. It must be a sickness, I conclude, because I couldn't put a finger on what it is that's making me doubt. Nobody I know struggles with their faith. My therapists, my lifelines, give me many palatable reasons for the sickness. Mesorah comes through the parent-child relationship, which I never had much of. I'm blaming God for things that I should blame my parents for. I got a fucked up version of the religion. Judaism is experienced emotionally, and I was robbed of my emotions. And so forth. But the questions never leave. How are we so sure we possess the truth? Why the Holocaust? Why did God give me this wretched existence called "my life"? Am I to believe that God created one billion Chinese people just so that we can have cheap Chanukah presents?

I'm hitting forty, and my latest shrink is going hardcore, shaking me up. Apparently, as big a pleaser as I am, I'm not that great of a husband or father. I need to do less pleasing, and more emotional growth. Out of that comes the inner me, a little braver, a little less fearful, more alive than ever. And I'm done with delegitimizing myself, and my questions. If I'm to please this big omnipotent dude, I need to get some good reasons why. But I'm still only flailing in the ocean.

Then a stroke of fortune - hashgacha pratis, as they say. I'm at a party by the neighbors, and the discussion turns to something about Emuna, and in my new life, I go contrarian. Little do I know, one of the people in the conversation is a closeted kofer! He starts pointing me to various blogs, video debates, books. He asks me tough questions, and gives me the tough answers. Three months later, I'm teetering, but still a believer. I go to my Rabbi with the questions, but he's no use. Besides the contradictions between Judaism and science and history, besides the Torah's insane moral compass,what's getting me is how the Torah is so much more sensible now. "Let there be a firmament in the middle of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters" (Genesis 1:6). I never understood what that meant, meforshim and all. Wikipedia leads me to a paper by Paul H. Seely in the Westminster Theological Journal, and the light bulb goes on. Of course that's what it means.

Nine months of research, debates with four rabbis and two shrinks, and I have my truth. It's mine, and no one can take it from me. It's clear, natural, pure, sweet. It's a truth not enforced by fear, fear of Hell, fear of damnation, fear of excommunication, or worst of all, by subduing my intellect.

My wife is puzzled by my revelation, and my therapist is still scratching his head. To their credit, they haven't shunned me. Some days, it seems like they understand what I'm saying, and I wonder if they are starting to question themselves. Mostly, though, they are still convinced my emotions are playing with me.

I'm not sure what the future will bring, or what the right path is. My kids are not youngsters anymore, and they are happy, but I cringe when they ask good questions and are fed silly answers, or if they should have to worry about black demons haunting them. I'm taking things slowly, still making my way through the light.

Now that my shpiel is concluding, it's time for the thanks. Thank you, Judaism, for teaching me about being grateful. Thank you, dearest wife, for saving my life a million times over, and for your nourishing love. Thank you, Zeidy, for teaching me intellectual honesty, to the best that you could allow yourself. Thank you, Freud and Company, for helping me achieve some peace and joy. Thank you, God, for nothing.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Why Do Orthodox Jews Keep Using the "Elef" = "Chief" Excuse When It Brings Traditional TMS into Question?

Last week's parsha (I'm A Little Behind) discussed a census of Israel in the desert

A frummy once commented:
"As for populations, that is indeed problematic until you learn that the word "elef" could mean "thousand" or "head of a unit of people" (like "aluf" means "chieftain"). That totally changes how you make the count in the Torah of the people. "

Anyways I feel like I'm missing something here. Someone tell me what I'm missing!!! I just do not get why people keep spouting this same old chieftain thing. I'm baffled. There are tons of problems with the whole idea but the worst part is IT JUST DOESN'T ADD UP! Let's just do some chazara:

Same Old Problem: Way too many people recorded in the Biblical census to be realistic

Same Old Suggested Solution:
The Hebrew word elef usually translated as "thousand" also can mean chief, or group, or clan

Fine everyone knows the elef = chief theory. (And if you don't look here)

So since I had just a little too much time on my hands I took a look at the census at he beginning of Numbers (Ch. 1)

Okay take this verse as an example
"those that were numbered of them, of the tribe of Reuben, were forty and six elef and five hundred."

Fine that would be forty six clans/chiefs/groups and 500 men. Add 'em all up from all the tribes and you get 598 elef=598 clans/chiefs/groups. Now jump down to the final verse. The last verse sums everything up and says:
"even all those that were numbered were six hundred elef and three elef and five hundred and fifty"

OOPS! Did Moshe (or maybe God) mess up his math and say 603 elef (chiefs) instead of 598 elef (chiefs)?! Shoulda double checked that one.

So I took a look at On the Reliability of the Old Testament by Kenneth Anderson Kitchen over here

And Kitchen basically says the following: The sum of all the hundreds is 5,550. At some point whoever wrote the Bible got a little confused and mixed up the word elef with the thousand from 5,500 and did the math 598+5 = 603. So basically the form that WE have of the Biblical census has been severely distorted due to a fundamental misunderstanding of the word elef.

Now for all you die hard intellifundies out there who just LOVE to shout "elef means chief!!!!" you have a few options in light of this seemingly obvious information:

1. Keep believing that 2 million people can walk around a desert for 40 years unnoticed (God sweeped away the evidence to trick archaeologists!)

2. Believe that the Biblical author botched the calculations and thus the Torah we have is probably not word for word from God.

3. Not do the math! (this is what I assume most intellifundies do)

If none of the above work you can do the following:

1. Say "Elef means Chief" Even LOUDER than before.

2. Bring into question the objective nature of arithmetic POMO Intellifundie style

Seriously am I missing something here?! (Is my arithmetic off? I hate arithmetic!) Is it so simple to find holes in one of the most celebrated pieces of apologetics in MO circles?

This is not an argument Modern Orthodox people should be using!
It completely brings traditional Orthodox TMS into question and is therefore completely inconsistent with their theological position.

(Just to clarify Kitchen's explanation is only a problem to MO-types who insist God/Moshe literally wrote the Torah. If you believe in a gradually developed Torah like Conservative Judaism then this is less of a consistency problem even though this whole interpretation is rather silly in the first place)