Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Learning Rashi On Chumash

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The Akeda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 18 October 2010

A Conversation

(Real Abridged Conversation)

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

Thursday, 14 October 2010

What I Want

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 13 October 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 11 October 2010


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

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

If you're interested just send me an email at shiltonhasechel@gmail.com.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

The Line of Literalism

Food for thought....

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

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

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