Monday, 10 October 2011

You Know You're Reform When...

One of the excuses the OP use to justify their lifestyle is that they find meaning in the actions they do. In other words even though we dont subscribe to the dogma, we find at least some of Judaism's rituals and practices meaningful so we keep them anyways.

But of course this is no longer Orthodoxy and it is not even Conservative Judaism. Both these movements *officially* believe man is OBLIGATED to follow rituals. You do them whether or not you find meaning in them. If you can find meaning in them then great! But if not you still do them because you have to.

The OP mindset I've described is much closer to the philosophy of Reform Judaism. Reform Judaism believes man is not obligated to follow Halacha and that Halacha is entirely man made. However, Reform Judaism sees value in keeping the rituals which furnish us with meaning while dropping the ones that don't.

My mindset and the mindset of many OP'ers especially those who skip the "less meaningful" rituals (e.g. praying every day, washing hands before bread, wearing tzitzit) is really some form of Reform Judaism.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Is Kiruv Education?

On Muqata blog there is a discussion about Christian missionaries in Modi'in. Jameel complains about the response of some of the "uber-liberals" in Modiin. The uber liberal in question wrote:
Btw. I know from personal experience that there are orthodox Jewish movements who are actively working on bringing secular Jews (back) to a religious lifestyle or trying to convince gentiles married to Jews to consider conversion to Judaism, but that wouldn't be considered missionary activity, right?
 To which Jameel responds sarcastically
Because after all, living in the Jewish State, educating people about Judaism should be outlawed (in Modi'in). (Stress Added)

Is Kiruv just Jewish education? Just teaching people about Judaism?

What rubbish. Kiruv is not just education for two reasons:

1. Kiruv only teaches Judaism as a means to get people to observe Orthodox Judaism. The primary goal of Kiruv movements is not to provide information but to use information to convince people to change their lives.

2. Certain Kiruv organizations provide false information that can hardly be called "education" but rather "manipulative indoctrination".

I doubt any Jew would be complaining about Christians teaching informative classes about Christianity in a university. The reason people don't like Christian missionaries is because they're not just teaching people who Jesus was for the hell of it but because they are actively trying to convince you to worship Jesus. Similarly if Aish HaTorah delivers a class on Gemara, I couldn't care less, however they don't just teach Gemara - but are selective in what they teach and try to use the teaching of  Jewish scriptures as part of a larger program of getting you to don a black hat, abandon your parents and become a mindless Orthodox sheep.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

The Extremism Paradox

It is interesting that two opposite extremes often agree on the interpretations of things.

Following up on the last post... I basically said that the only difference between "mitzvah-killing" in Judaism and "mitzvah-killing" in Islam, from an Orthodox perspective, is our Torah is right and their Quran is wrong.

My goal was to shatter the illusion that Orthodox Judaism is somehow more humane or moderate than other religions.

Ironically what seems to be an extremist on the other side of the spectrum basically agrees with me on a comment on one of Rabbi Slikfin's recent posts

TorahJew said...

Rabbi Slifkin, I'm not sure I understand your discussion here. If one believes that the Torah is God given, then there is no question -- it's actually a simple argument. God gave us the Torah. The Torah tells us to wipe out the nation of Amalek. End of story. The reason why terrorists have no moral basis is that the Koran (which they use to justify the killing of non-Muslims) was not given MiSinai. Am I missing something here? Or there is some issue with the idea of Torah MiSinai? (emphasis mine) 
Both of us are trying to show that flaws of "justifying" the Torah but for different reasons. 

TorahJew because to him moderation is not a "Torah True" virtue and the only virtuous thing in the world is complete and unquestioning dedication to God without any other standard of morality. Trying to justify killing Amalek is extraneous and comparing divinely inspired Judaism to foolish Islam is ridiculous. 

I because of my dedication to moderation and a non-theocentric morality - and my claim that Orthodox Judaism does no represent that ideal.

It's interesting is we are both doing the same exact thing but for different ends! Claiming that the Torah does not represent any sort of humanistic or moderate ideal.

Historically a similar "alliance" happened when it came to the interpretation of the Rambam's Moreh Nevuchim in the Middle Ages. The conservative zealots and the extreme rationalists, joined hands in a sense, both imputing to the Rambam very radical super-rationalistic ideas. The zealots to show what a shocking guy the Rambam really was, and the extreme rationalists in order to show that the Rambam was an extreme rationalist like them!

Just thought it was interesting ...

Sunday, 11 September 2011

God said it was ok...

Rabbi Slifkin posted this

Which got me thinking...

The only reason people accuse terrorists of being wrong is not because of their actions. Everyone, Radical Jihadist Muslims included agree that killing people is basically wrong. However, Jihadists believe that for the greater good and because, and this is important, Allah wants it - that an exceptions must be made.

Our disagreement boils down to contesting that very assumption i.e. that Allah wants it

Jews, Christians and other theists disagree because Muhammad and the Quran do not accurately represent the will of God.

Atheists disagree because they believe there is no God.

But I think most would agree that given that there is a benevolent and all knowing God, and given that this God wants you to kill some people, that that would be ok. Any moral offense you might personally feel to this directive stems from your short-sightedness. How can a puny mortal questions GOD's morality?

That being said killing Amalek is exactly the same as Jihad. The only difference is targets. The Orthodox Jew thinks that Biblical Jews knew who God really wanted killed and Muslims just happen to have got the wrong people. It follows that the act of religious killing itself is not the problem, the problem is one needs to make sure you got the right guy.

For an Orthodox Jew, I don't think you can object to religious killing per se, unless you deny God or literal word for word revelation. Since these are both tenets of Orthodox faith - I think it's time for Orthodox Jews out there to either rethink themsevles or rethink their visceral repulsion to Muslim terrorism.

Nebach! The poor terrorists are just trying to do Hashem's will, but unfortunately they just made a mistake when they ascribed divinity to the wrong prophet thus killing the wrong people...

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Tisha B'Av

There are things to mourn, a lotav shit has happened to us Jews - and I figure one day a year its worth thinking about, but I'm very selective in what I'm commemorating.

I refuse to say kinnot which attribute our misfortunes to our sins. One of the biggest themes in the Tisha B'Av liturgy is how we are supposed to take heart of the misfortunes that befall us and reflect on our sins. I don't believe in many things but this I not only don't believe in but find offensive. People create a God in their own image and strive to imitate their ideal being, people who worship a vengeful God will themselves be vengeful. When one says God punishes sinners one is making more than an ontological statement - one is saying that sinners DESERVE to be punished. And since I disagree with a value that I find so abhorrent, I therefore reject even discussing God in such terms.

I also refuse to mourn a loss of some idyllic age for the simple reason there was never such an idyllic age. The Jewish people have never been better off than they are today, Israel and Jerusalem have never been as prosperous as they are today. I kindav imagine God listening to people crying and saying Nachem on Tisha B'Av and him saying "Jeez! What do these people want from me?! I gave them a whole f'ing country and they're still whining about some fires 2,000 years ago!"

And finally, I honestly don't really care about a Beit HaMikdash. Seems a little silly to me sacrificing hoards of animals to feed/please God. I mean I guess tefillin and lulavs and all sorts of other things are equally silly but I suppose they have more of a tradition behind them. Rabbinic Judaism really only became what it is today in Shuls and Study Halls - not in a Temple. I think my point is that some Jews feel they are not complete without a temple and that their religious practice is somehow not good enough, I however am more than happy to keep doing things the way we've been doing it for the last 2,000 years - i.e. without a Temple.

Even without those things there is still enough to mourn.  We've had a difficult past let's not forget it.

Monday, 8 August 2011

History Shmistory

Harry Maryles just posted on Emes V'Emuna criticizing Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky for refusing to say the bracha "Sh'lo Asani Isha" "Who did not make me a woman" - because nowadays such a bracha is a "chillul hashem".

Of course Chas v'shalom that anyone should change the halacha! It is written it shall be done!
 Harry even admits that this halacha bothers him yet refuses to do anything about it!

And he says such things as:

"It is one thing to question why Chazal instituted something or ask why it was instituted in a specific way – one which seems to contradict our modern day sensibilities. But to reject a mandate of Chazal as recoded in the Shulchan Aruch (OC 46:4) is more than just modifying tradition."

he also says

"It is one thing to not understand the reason Chazal enacted certain things..."

What do you mean "not understand"? What kind of silly rhetoric is this? There is no "question here"! It is more than clear why Chazal enacted this bracha. And I wish Harry would say it straight out. The reason Chazal instituted this bracha was simply becasue they were SEXIST. Say it like it is! None of these vague statements about "offending our modern sensibilities" and "questioning Chazal's reasons". Harry won't even say that one word which explains it all so well - SEXISM.

I don't blame Chazal for being sexist in a sexist world anymore than I blame them for not using antibiotics.

But the fact is that if you follow Chazal in such things you have to admit that you are a modern day man/woman following an antiquated sexist law code.

It is an utterly strange philosophy that would require us to OBEY laws which were clearly legislated in a sexist spirit. It is a symptom of the ridiculous anti-historicism which allows Orthodoxy to continue...

Wake up people! Halacha was not created in a vacuum! It was formed in very specific historical contexts! Treating it like it is some eternal unchanging LAW is the height of stupidity.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Divrei Torah

The way to give a good Devar Torah is to "connect" it to our lives. How does the Chumash speak to me? What lesson can we learn from this pasuk? How do God's words apply to us?

Often I've prepared a good, sound Devar Torah and have needed to consult with someone to come up with a good ending. An ending which makes people feel like this isn't some abstract scholarly discussion (which would be more than enough for me) but is a moral and edifying lesson.  Sometimes I just bullshit an ending that has only the most tenuous connection to the actual Torah. (And therefore we should all be good!) But hey, it's all about pleasing the crowd I guess...

What bothers me is people taking the text and treating it anachronistically. Which is almost inevitable  seeing as the lessons of the text are intended primarily to teach pastoral nomads how to behave when they've plundered a city and the correct way to rape captives. The text's original intent has very little to offer us.

But hey I'm a pretty post-modern guy. I can live with a Death of an Author mentality. I actually like taking a text and imbuing it with new meaning. The text becomes fluid and eternal. The words rise up from their humble beginnings and become something so much more.

So why does it bother me when other people do it?

Because other people don't understand that they're not discussing original intent. They think that the text originally intended to portray Moshe as tzitzit wearing tzadik with a black hat. There is no difference to them between the Torah as it was written and the Torah as it was interpreted. To them there is THE TORAH. And THE TORAH has some great lessons to discuss around the table over some cholent.

And that just bothers me. That people are too ignorant to tell the difference.

My ideal is someone like James Kugel who is cognizant of both the original intent of the text and also appreciates its interpretation and the new meaning it is given as something religiously meaningful..

Tuesday, 5 July 2011


It's interesting that modern Jews, at least in my experience, seem so adverse to thinking of God as a corporeal being.

Obviously Maimonides had a huge influence on Jewish conceptions of God to the point where it is considered heresy nowadays by most Orthodox Jews to talk about God's hand or face...

But I think it's more than that. People feel, or at least I used to feel, that a corporeal God was a ridiculous idea. God as a man on a mountain with a big white beard was an absurd notion... Of course God has no body! How could one even think otherwise?

But if you think about it. The notion of a big man with a flowing white beard and a huge golden throne perched on Russel's teapot and directing the events of the world - has just as much evidence supporting it as an incorporeal God.

And I can understand what a big man is, I can imagine it... I can't understand what "incorporeal" means or even explain it. "It's there but it's not physical" What the hell does that mean?

So as far as I'm concerned - if you believe in God - God should be described corporeally - for the simple reason that you can imagine a big skyfather. Jews shouldn't fancy themselves sophisticated just because they avoid describing God with a body. Truth is it's just as silly.

Evidence is evidence and if it's lacking it doesn't matter whether God is an invisible force or a glowing Olympian God.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Judaism Believes...

It really bothers me a lot when people say "Judaism says: ...." or "Judaism believes..." As soon as one has let those two words slip s/he has already said a lie. Judaism is not a monolithic philosophical system. Saying "Judaism believes" is roughly equivalent to saying "philosophers say" or "Americans believe"

When it comes to what "Judaism" thinks about life the universe and everything - pretty much anything which could be thought has been thought. So at least philosophically speaking you cannot say the following things:

Judaism believes in free will and denies determinism

Judaism believes in Heaven and Hell

Judaism believes God is incorporeal

Judaism believes in a Messiah

Judaism believes in creation ex nihilo

All these statements which I've heard way too many times are false. Although one can say that historically Jewish thinkers tend to believe in free will, creation ex nihilo and the Messiah, one cannot state categorically that Judaism believes in these things - unless of course you don't want to include Chasdai Crescas, the Ralbag and some forms of Chassidut in the category of "Judaism".

People don't like uncertainty. They don't want a choice between thinkers. They don't want someone to tell them "Some people think this, and some people think that." No! People want their religion served on a plate. They want sturdy foundations and unquestionable tenets. They cannot accept heterogeneity.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Texts Meaning What They Say

As far as I can tell until the advent of Modern Literary Scholarship, people made a very interesting assumption about any text that they were presented to interpret.

They assumed that the text did not mean what it says.

When it says God raised his hand he didn't really raise his hand.

When the Mishna says one thing it actually means another.

When Reuven slept with Bilha he did not actually sleep with her.

When the Gemara mentions a giant bird it doesn't actually refer to a giant bird. 

The concept of taking a text at face value, of actually taking the words in a text seriously, and assuming that people write what they mean is a very modern concept. It is I believe THE fundamental difference between approaching a text in a modern way and approaching a text in a traditional way.

It's interesting that this does not seem to be intuitive at all. I cannot say at any point in my life before I was introduced to the modern approach, that it ever occurred to me to read a text as it was. I think this has to do with cultivating a sense of objectivity. Our natural inclination is to interpret any text by our standards and sensibilities. Due to almost unbridgeable cultural gap between me and a person living a thousand years ago it is almost inevitable that I will interpret a text differently than the original intent if I try to impose my own sensibilities on it.

Setting objectivity as a goal actually one of the most counter-intuitive things a person can we tend to interpret a text in light of ourselves and put ourselves into the text....

Thursday, 26 May 2011

The Heart's Eye

The foundation of all knowledge is "empiricism". I see a swan so I assume swans exist. I jump in a lake so I assume that this lake exists. Many observations can lead to indirect form of knowledge like scientific theories.

But the huge corpus of human knowledge is all based on something so frail and fallible. Everything we humans claim to know comes from our senses. We attribute "Reality" to the observations of our senses but the truth is that these senses are far from infallible and we humans live in a world dominated by a persistent Cartesian doubt

There is another sense. Perhaps we can call it emotion. Feelings. Faith. Scientists generally reject such things as sources of truth. Just because you FEEL that you are Napoleon doesn't make you into a conquering dictator. Just because you FEEL that an invisible man gave you a holy book doesn't make a revelation at Sinai happen.

Or at least that's what the scientist will say.

But why are the impressions made on our senses any better than impressions made on our hearts. Why is the former a more valid source of truth in many people's eyes. Maybe I actually am Napoleon if I feel like it. Maybe God does exist if I feel it in my heart. If my eyes fail to confirm God perhaps my heart can.

Perhaps the feelings of the heart are just as much a window to this thing called "Reality" as the observations of the eyes. 

One obvious advantage of empirical observations vs. "emotional observations" is that empirical observations have proven themselves useful. The advance of technology, improvement of human living conditions, medicine, science all the foundations of modern society all come from accepting "empiricism".

Have the feelings of the heart proven as useful? That is a matter which needs further study.

But we have to keep in mind that it is the heart that originally validated empiricism. The human heart is certain that it is surrounded not by an illusion - but by something real - something with an independent existence. Philosophers can prattle all day about whether or not this world we live in is not some sort of solipsistic delusion. But even the most skeptical philosopher will go home to eat supper - unafraid that his home is but a delusion. But all of  this is merely a feeling an "observation of the heart". Before we had invented tools or dabbled in technology we did not know that empiricism would prove useful. But we felt that it was true. We felt that what we saw is what there is. Without questioning....

This is perhaps a variation of the lame blogger argument that can be summed up as "I don't know other people exist but I assume they do and same goes for God." Most people, myself included, have laughed at this argument. But perhaps there is more to it than meets the eye.

If you feel God exists. If your "heart's eye" literally screams that he is there watching you. Then is it any worse than believing that the car parked outside your house is actually there....

Monday, 16 May 2011

Avoiding the Nitty Gritty

Is it not somewhat interesting that no Orthodox (that I know of - except maybe Cassuto) - TMS supporting - scholar has ever sat down and methodically discussed and given alternative explanations for the textual variations in the Pentateuch - the likes of which are used to establish the veracity of the Documentary Hypothesis. Sure, I think everyone has taken a crack at explaining the differences between YHWH and Elohim, or the differences between Yaakov and Yisrael - but I'm yet to see an Orthodox scholar sit down and explain the convergence of evidence surrounding these variations.

I've discussed the evidence of the DH in detail in the past. By convergence of evidence I mean the fact that not only does God's name change but also different sets of vocabulary and terminology accompany each name change AND name changes often correspond to parallel accounts.

So even if Umberto Cassuto, or M.Z. Segel give alternative explanations as to why God is sometimes called YHWH and sometimes called Elohim - AFAIK they have never explained WHY these changes are accompanied by other textual variations. When you find three or more types of variations all occurring in tandem - you have to wonder if there isn't some sort of pattern....

Orthodox "rebuttals" of Biblical criticism always deal with generalities. They will try to knock down general principles of the DH without even referring to the "boring", pedantic word lists which the theory is based on....

Part of the fault here is that of modern, popular supporters of the DH who fail to make their case. Richard Elliot Friedman's - Who Wrote the Bible - presents the conclusion of Biblical criticism - clearly explaining who is J who is E etc. But he barely makes any sort of convincing case for these divisions, he just assumes they are true. It is sad that I was only convinced of the (basic idea) of the DH by referring to books from the 20's. Maybe modern Biblical scholarship (or at least the type of Biblical scholarship available to us laypeople, perhaps in the academic world there is more discussion about the nitty gritty) suffers from misplaced confidence that it's theories are well established facts and no longer feels a need to try proving it...

 Either ways I laugh every time I hear a response from Orthodoxy to Bible Criticism . Sometimes friends of mine confront me and ask me if I realize that it's all rubbish made up by Protestant antisemites. I invariably ask them if they sat with a Chumash and a word list and highlighted word and name variations in the different chapters of Genesis.

Most of them grudgingly have to admit they haven't. 

 For some reason these confident critics of Biblical scholarship never found the time to actually do the dirty work and check how many times it says והקימותי את בריתי or ויעצב  אל לבו in Genesis.

Leave the Bible scholarship to those who are willing to sit and read word lists.

And don't trust the Kiruv Klowns because they are too busy looking for Torah codes to open up S.R. Driver.... 

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Thinking About The Watchmaker Analogy

To quote William Paley:

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. (...) There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. (...) Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.

I think this is the gist of it : 
1. When I see a watch I know intuitively that it was made by a human being.
2. Why do I have this intuition? The complexity of the watch is that which intuitively suggest an intelligent designer.
3. Similarly the complexity of nature should intuitively suggest to us such a designer.
4. Since this designer is clearly NOT a human therefore it must be someone else i.e. God. 

Ok now the problems:
The first proposition is sound.

The second proposition: The complexity of the watch is that which intuitively suggests an intelligent designer. Who says that it is the complexity of the watch which suggest to me that it is made by an intelligent designer. Perhaps it is my prior experience with watches and things crafted by man? Would a cave man instantly recognize the watch as intelligently and purposefully designed? Would an alien? I'm not sure...

The third proposition:  Similarly the complexity of nature should intuitively suggest to us such a designer. A few problems: Firstly if it's so intuitive why the need for the watch analogy in the first place? I should just KNOW in a flash of intuition! Maybe it's my תאוות for sex and drugs which are blinding me and the watch will knock some sense into me....

Wikipedia suggests that the watch is merely a rhetorical device in which case the argument boils down to: "You know nature is designed because it's complex. THE END" which is a blatant non-sequitir. One has to explain WHY complexity automatically suggests design...

But another question! If everything is designed either by God or Man then how is it that it is so easy for Paley, in the quote above, to distinguish between rock and watch. According to his own logic I should NOT be able to distinguish between the two because they are BOTH products of design. Either God's or man's. Have you my dear theist, ever seen an un-designed thing? You have? Then you've seen something not designed by God? A little kefira-dick don't you think?

I suppose you could say maybe that only organisms are designed. (Even though that would be kefira-dick) You have to admit they are more complex than rocks.... 

In which case the argument is I can intuitively discern watches from rocks the same way as I can discern  kangaroos from rocks....  I guess that could be sound if there weren't all the other objections...
The Fourth Proposition: Since this designer is clearly NOT a human therefore it must be someone else i.e. God. Or martians.

"Silly, atheist! Where did the martians come from!?" "hmmmm maybe from the same place God came from...."

Also -  how do we know the designer is not a human? What in our intuition allows us to discern between man-made design and God-made design? In fact if we take the analogy seriously it is actually suggesting that nature shows signs of being man-made not God made. We simply have no rock stamped MADE BY GOD to compare nature to...

I guess you could say because we know from elsewhere that man doesn't know how to manufacture orangutans... 


Intuition is sometimes rubbish. Humans see designs in french toast, clouds and ink splotches.... Wouldn't put too much faith in it...

 The watchmaker argument is an appeal to emotions, an elegant statement about the complexity of nature which some cannot but attribute to God. But it is not logic nor should it be presented as such. To stand in awe of the universe and see a maker behind it is fine. However to call that science or logic is just incorrect. 

Read the Wikipedia article for a fuller discussion....

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Why So Few Female Skeptics?

I can't say this is a fact because I have never really looked into it but the feeling I get from my personal day to day experience is that Orthopraxic girls are very rare. Maybe I'm just hanging around the wrong circles but while I know lots of Orthoprax (or virtually Orthoprax) guys I barely know any Orthoprax gals...(though I know some who I feel could be tipped over the edge with a bit of subtle encouragement - if I was so inclined - which I'm not)

So either I'm just completely wrong about this or we're dealing with a real thing in which case we have to wonder WHY?

Some purely speculative pet theories (Again: assuming I'm describing a real phenomenon which I'm not sure about) :

In the Orthodox world girls are taught much less of the fundamental texts of Orthodoxy i.e. the Talmud and Rabbinic literature... Therefore they do perhaps do not know enough about Orthodoxy to effectively criticize it.

A variant of the first theory: When immersed in "Talmudism" one begins to think of religion as a very logical methodological thing. When religion fails, under scrutiny, to stand up to this expectation one ends up being skeptical. However, women who generally do not study Talmud, or even if they do - not as much as men, perhaps (and excuse me if this sounds a little stereotypical or sexist) think of religion less logically and more emotionally. Just to clarify, I'm not saying women are inherently "emotional". All I'm saying is that study Talmud might diminish the emotional element in religion and make one perceive religion in a much more technical or logical way. Since religion is not logical the Talmudic man will find himself at a bit of a loss. Since religion IS emotional the non-Talmudic woman will not.

Orthodoxy's sexism is too much for a self-respecting female to put up with and so cruising along Orthopraxly is just too distasteful if you think it's all rubbish. According to this Orthodox women are not less skeptical than men but merely pick up and leave.

Of course all of this is meaningless speculation without proper studies, but it's fun to muse about....

Please everyone, share your theories or tell me that I'm wrong about female skeptics... 

(Oh just a clarification 'cuz I get the feeling in the comments that some people don't get this. I'm not running around rocking payos and a black hat and being Orthoprax. I associate with LWMO. So everything I describe is from my LWMO perspective. Back when I was in the Chareidi world  I did not meet one male or female Orthopraxer and literally thought I might be the only one. Only very recently did I meet a black-hat Orthopraxer)

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Orthoprax Pros and Cons


  • You don't have to break ties with your fundamentalist family and friends
  • You can continue a lifestyle you're familiar with and continue living comfortably in a community you like
  • You can continue enjoying the bits and pieces of Judaism you like


  • You have to speak with a bit of a filter in order to keep people appeased - AKA lie about your true beliefs
  • You have to feign horror when hearing that someone has angered God by eating a cheeseburger
  • You have to keep a lot of annoying and also useless things which mean nothing to you
  • You have to take part in some morally offensive things like listening attentively to a chapter of the Torah commanding genocide... 

 Is it worth it? Or should we get out while we still can?

I'm at the point where I just wanna believe so that I can stop worrying about it. The clock is ticking and I'm not gonna have the opportunity to leave forever...

Inertia is strong through.

God, I wish I knew what to do....

Thursday, 7 April 2011

On Being "Aished"

So someone Emailed me this essay he wrote about Kiruv Organizations. Scroll down for the article - but first a few words from me: 

I've said it once and I'll say it again. I hate Aish HaTorah, Ohr Samayach, Project Chazon and all sorts of Kiruv organizations.

I don't object to kiruv perse - people have the right to peddle their religion and for some people Orthodoxy may just be the right thing. Different things work for different people and I think it's more than legitimate to invite irreligious people to Shul or your Shabbat meal and give them a taste of what Orthodoxy is.

But I can't abide manipulation and I can't abide lying. Presenting Orthodox Judaism as "scientific" fact is a lie.

And that's exactly what the organized Kiruv organizations do. Rabbi Slifkin has been recently posting about the use of the Talmudic "four animal proof" which is such a blatant lie that I can't imagine that the kiruv workers using it don't know that they're bending the truth.

I can't abide the Kuzari proof which is logically unsound in countless ways. I recently sat and forced myself to listen to a Lawrence Kelleman lecture about the Kuzari proof. The way he bent facts, cleverly used logical fallacies, and used "scientific" terminology was actually sickening. I hope to God that he is just severely naive and is not doing it on purpose.

I can't stand sugar coating the truths of Orthodoxy. Yes Orthodoxy is sexist, yes the Talmud did not have a high opinion of gentiles, yes certain sects of Orthodoxy are anti-scientific. But the Kiruv organizations will never tell it's "victims" any of these things 'till they're deep in the system. And because people who are being "mekareved" have almost no knowledge about Judaism -  they have no idea that Kiruv workers are carefully leaving out the less savory bits of Orthodoxy in their presentations...

Do these organizations have no integrity? Do they believe that the ends justify the means? Or are these types of Kiruv workers just as naive as their targets?

Anyways here's  article:
On Being Aished

Monday, 4 April 2011

Jewish History as "Proof" of God

We’ve all heard the familiar refrain “Believe in Judaism because of the miraculous history of the Jews! How could such an oppressed and pursued nation have survived the tribulations of the exile if not through some sort of miracle?”

Like most attempts to base Judaism on some sort of “proof” – this one IMHO fails. At best our history can inspire but it can’t prove and can’t even point or hint to some sort of divine agent who protects Israel.
How does one go about destroying the Jewish people/religion once they’ve become a relatively large religious movement spread all over the world? Are there really so many people plotting the destruction of world Jewry? And is such a scenario even a possibility were God to leave us to the vicissitudes of the world?
The most straightforward way to rid the world of Jews is to kill them. And indeed over the years many Jews have been killed because of their religion or “race”. However, it is important to remember that despite what we say in our Passover liturgy - no government or power (AFAIK) until Hitler ever made an attempt to physically destroy the Jewish People in its entirety. (With the exception of the story of Megillat Ester which is of dubious historicity) The uniqueness of the Holocaust in the long history of anti-Semitism is that it was meant to be a “Final Solution.” Progroms, crusades, and blood libels were  not meant as a “final solution” to a “Jewish problem”. The reason that Jews physically survived the exile is actually quite simple – no one until the Holocaust ever tried to exterminate them completely.

The above is equally true when it comes to converting Jews. Although in a few cases entire countries tried to convert their Jewish populations (many times in Spain) we must keep in mind that both Christianity and Islam officially believe that forced conversions are not valid.

It is not a miracle that we survived if nobody was actually plotting to annihilate us, physically or spiritually, in the first place.

Another important factor worth considering is the dispersion of Jews. Jews are and were found in almost every corner of the Earth. Jews have lived in Europe, the Middle East, Russia, Buchara, Georgia, Britain, and even the New World and the Far East. With so many Jews living in so many places and under so many different religions and governments - it is literally impossible to convert or exterminate every last Jew in the world. The amount of organization that would be required is mind boggling and would require the most outrageous conspiracy to implement. Even if one or two anti-Semitic nations decided that a world with no Jews would be a better place, one or two nations simply do not have the power to kill/convert all the Jews spread out all over the world. It would take a veritable pandemic of universal, murderous anti-semitism for such a terrible thing to be even vaguely possible.

I think the better question to ask about Jewish History is “How couldn’t the Jews survive the Exile?” And I have to admit that I don’t find it too miraculous that we managed to survive when the entirety of our “nation” was never really in jeopardy.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

The Difference Between A Mekubal and a Researcher

The title of this post could equally be called the difference between a Yeshiva Rabbi and a Talmud Researcher

I The Mekubal

I would say (at least one of) the major cornerstone of traditional Orthodox "scholarship"whether it be in the study of the Bible, the Talmud or Kabbalah is the concept of a Mesora. The idea of a Mesora in this context is as follows: People who write things down are (usually) not expressing their own views but rather are merely penning a timeless tradition which ultimately stems from Sinai. This idea is called in the Talmud the Torah She B'al Peh. While there are obvious problems with taking this approach to it's extreme, and I doubt even the most extreme Chareidim accept this completely, it nevertheless has a huge affect on how Jewish texts were/are learned traditionally.

Take for example the Arizal (15th century Kabbalist of Tzfat who first expressed what is called "Lurianic Kabbalah") Reasons the traditional scholar, "The Arizal did not make up his philosophy from nowhere it MUST be based on a tradition." (Or perhaps in the case of the Arizal a visit from Eliyahu Hanavi) If this is true then we can explain and understand things from before the 15th century with the aid of the Arizal's teachings.... because of the Arizal we know that when the Gemara says such and such it means ABC and D and when the Zohar says such and such it means EFG and H . The thing about a mesora is that all the "gedolim" between Moshe and Arizal should know about it. Therefore it is utterly sensible to interpret things from the 13th century according to doctrines only written down in the 15th century. Because before these things were written down they were surely known word of mouth as oral traditions....

II The Researcher

The researcher follows this approach: One looks at every text independently AND contextually. That is to say that the way the Arizal interpreted the Zohar is not necessarily how other people interpreted it in the past, and is perhaps not how the author of the Zohar intended. Similarly the way the Talmud interprets a verse is not necessarily how the Mishna interprets a verse or what the verse was intended to mean in the first place. The researcher essentially ignores or disregards the possibility of oral traditions. Additionally there is the concept of context. The researcher instead of seeing the message of a given work as something timeless sees it as a something influenced by the circumstances, surroundings and influences of the author. So the Zohar is best understood in it's Spanish context and the Talmud Bavli in it's Babylonian context etc.

To understand the Zohar based on the Arizal or the Mishna based on the Talmud can sometimes be  anachronistic... Sometimes the Talmud is mechaven to what we would call the original intent of the Mishna at other times the Talmud's interpretation of the Mishna reflects the world and ideas of the Talmud more than those of the Mishna....

Monday, 7 February 2011

Flipping Out

It occurs to me that "flip-outs" and off the deep-end, black hat BT's make the following mistake.

For whatever reason these idividuals have decided to dedicate their lives to Judaism. However they often decide that a form of Chareidism is the best way to do this. Now it is possible that these individuals actually identify with the extreme anti-historical anti-critical attitude to Judaism (as opposed to regular Orthodoxy which only mildly anti-historical) however I sometimes find that these people simply don't know enough about the difference in ideology between Chareidism and Modern Orthodoxy.

IMHO, though I can't say I've actually heard anyone admit this or anything, these people mistake Chareidism as a difference in degree rather than a difference in ideology. Reasons the enthusiastic BT/flip out: "I want to dedicate my life to Judaism, and Chareidim are the people who are the strictest about Judaism therefore I'll don the black hat and grow out my peos"

Now it is true that Chareidim are the strictest about Judaism but this is an ideological issue. Chareidim are stricter because they believe that the best way to be Jewish IS to be strict. However a more Modern Orthodox person would perhaps argue that strictness is not always the best way to go.

Also the strictness of Chareidism often stems from literalism and inability to perceive that times have changed (again even Modern Orthodoxy suffers from similar problems but to a lesser degree.)

So our BT or flip-out has perhaps not realized that stricter does not necessarily mean BETTER and that Chareidism stems not so much from a higher degree of dedication to the Jewish faith but rather from a different ideology.

In which case our BT must ask him/herself if s/he REALLY agrees with this ideology and whether this ideology is really better than Modern Orthodoxy....

That's what I figure but what do y'all think am I totally off the mark here?

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Deifying Rabbis

Humans are selfish and when it comes down to it they won't do anything unless they perceive some sort of reward. (Of course the definition of a "reward" can be quite fluid)

Why follow halacha? What practical benefits will halacha bring to my life?
A. It will keep God happy and failure to keep halacha will make him mad
B. It will make my life better. After all God knows what actions lead to a good life.
C. God said so and he's really smart. Presumably he had a good reason.

All these reasons and variations thereof are all great reasons to keep the Torah. However there is the slightly inconvenient issue that most of Rabbinical Judaism is Rabbinical. In other words most of the rituals, blessings, and celebrations we practice did not come straight from God but rather were instituted by Rabbis.

And that brings us to a problem of incentive. It's all well and good to dedicate ones life to GOD's word. Because God knows best. But unfortunately this reason will only suffice to explain a small fraction of the large corpus of mostly Rabbinical halacha. What of the rest? Why keep it?

Well from a legal standpoint we have the famous derasha לא תסור מן הדבר אשר יגידו לך ימין ושמאל . This verse, according to the Gemara is a commandment from God to listen to the Rabbis. Their word is His word.

But perhaps that just doesn't cut it. Still Rabbis are humans. Correct? What if they make a mistake? Why would a wise God command us to follow a mistaken pesak, or takana? And why should I follow a halacha made up by a mortal man if I don't agree with that halacha? What makes Rabbi So and So cleverer than me?  

Perhaps it is these "dangerous" questions which led to another doctrine. A doctrine that makes the words of the Rabbis equivalent to God's not just legally but also literally.

Perhaps the Rabbis were more than human. Perhaps they were actually infallible "angels" with a direct line to God. They weren't speaking as humans but rather through Ruach Hakodesh. The Gemara is just as much the word of God as the Torah because the Rabbis were but mouthpieces for the almighty.

It follows that we should take the miraculous stories about them literally. After all people with a direct line to God surely can perform miracles. And it also follows that people with a direct line to God not only knew Torah but also knew all of science, history, and everything. If the Rabbis are but God's proxies on Earth then their word is God's word. And God can't be wrong.

The Chareidi "deification" of Chazal is not just naivete or literalism. It serves a fundamental purpose in religious incentive. We want to follow the dictates of the All-knowing Almighty - not the interpretations of mortal men - no matter how clever they are. Because man can be wrong but God cannot. Therefore a new "species" of men must be invented. Men who are angels is the most literal sense - literal messengers of God. Following these people is analogous to following God himself. 

And then one can sleep safely at night knowing that not only do the Rabbis want you to say Keriat Shma Al Hamitta. But also God בכבודו ובעצמו

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The Zohar

There's been some recent talk recently on the blogosphere about how old the Zohar is. Jewish mysticism and the Zohar in particular happen to be personal interests of mine so i thought I'd add some thoughts.

Before one even looks at Isaiah Tishby's impressive array of arguments against Tannaitic authorship of the Zohar (Introduction to Mishnat HaZohar) one has to ask a more basic question. Which is why did a book which was purportedly written in the 2nd century not get quoted directly or even mentioned until the late 13th century?

Unless there was an incredible consensus, on the level of a conspiracy, to keep a well known work out of any written work for hundreds of years, then its fairly safe to assume that no one or almost no one knew about the Zohar until the days of Moshe De Leon.

Which would make sense if it weren't written until his days. 

But no fear. There are various stories about how Moshe De Leon obtained the heretofore forgotten book. And it's even accepted among various mekubalim that the Zohar was "revealed" after a period of being "lost". I forget who said it but it was something to the extent of "How fortunate I am to be born in a generation when the Zohar was revealed"

This is all well and good but one should generally not trust mysterious texts found in caves and delivered by ship to Spain. How did Moshe De Leon know that the text he "revealed" was written by Rashbi? How did anyone know that it was written by Rashbi? Mesora? But we've already pointed out that there was clearly a long period of time when the book was generally not known as attested to by its absence in hundreds of Rabbinic texts over a time span of almost a thousand years. (Again I mean direct quotations, books have been written trying to find "Zoharic" concepts in earlier Rabbinic literature)

Is it possible that the ideas of the Zohar were always around from the times of Rashbi and that it was merely put in writing in the 13th century? Is it possible that a chain of secret mekubalim handed down the Zohar secretly over thousands of years only "revealing" it in the 13th century?

Anything is possible. But I find it quite unlikely.

Perhaps more discussion to follow.....