Sunday, 21 November 2010

Funny Video

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

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Excuses Not Questions

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

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

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

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

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

He gave them another beracha that they would merit teshuva shelema

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

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

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

History is Textual

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 8 November 2010


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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 1 November 2010

It's Not About Science

Stating the obvious but...

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

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

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

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