Monday, 10 December 2012

Absolute Meaning (Guest Post)

Guest Post by D. Nesher 

Thanks Shilton for hosting the post – this is something I’ve wanted to write about for a while now, if only to organise my own thoughts more coherently.

I imagine that the feeling of an absence of meaning is fairly common amongst people who are coming to/ have come to the conclusion that they can’t intellectually buy in to the whole theistic organised religion thing. Indeed, at least in my experience, the “argument from meaning” (If there is no God then there is no meaning) is often raised by theists and those who are pro-religion, in discussions and debates.

Obviously this argument is fallacious; for starters,wanting there to be meaning is not sufficient criteria for that actually being the case. Of equal importance is the fact that “meaning” is subjective, and it is arrogant and rude to reject an individual’s claim that simply wanting to be a better person/raise kids/watch large amounts of TV grants meaning to his or her life.

Having said that, it is difficult to deny the fact that theism and organised religion ostensibly make a case for what can be described as “absolute” meaning, something that is a lot harder (though I suppose not impossible) to defend from a sceptical outlook.

In my own life, this perceived lack of “absolute” meaning has not been excessively troubling. While it may be true that I find it hard to argue against complete moral relativism or pessimistic nihilism from a reasoned and philosophical position, as a standard-issue human being I am equipped with a conscience, emotions such as sympathy and empathy, and a drive for success and advancement, and it is these things that dictate my day-to-day thoughts and behaviour, not the conclusions of my navel-gazing. I imagine that this slight discord between actual philosophical beliefs and normative integration into the world constitutes a part of themodus Vivendi of the average secular-minded person.

However, despite not being particularly bothered by this issue in a deep way, I have recently been questioning the notion of “absolute” meaning, wondering whether it can exist at all. To explain what I am driving at, I will quote a joke that I heard about a year ago that made a profound impression on me. The joke was said on the TV show, the Colbert Report, by Stephen Colbert (I am not sure if the joke is his own or if he was quoting it), and it is as follows:
 “OK. So a guy commits suicide. And he goes to heaven, he gets to heaven.And God greets him there, and the guy said, "I'm so surprised I'm here. First of all, I thought there was no God. Second of all, I thought if you killed yourself, you know, you were damned forever."God said, "You know, that's a complicated issue. Everybody at least thinks about ending it, you know, killing themselves at some point." And God says, "Even I've thought of it."The guy said, "Can I ask, why didn't you do it?"And God said, "What if this is all there is?"
 At the time I found the joke funny and thought-provoking, but I have only recently pondered the point it raises more deeply.  What makes meaning that ends with God and his commands “absolute”? Like an annoying kid (and I was that annoying kid), you can just keep asking “why?” – “OK. This is what God himself wants me to do..... but why? Now what? Why does God want that? What is the point of God?”.  You end up with an infinite regress situation which is, to my mind, reminiscent of the debate between those theologians who state that God must exist because of the issue of first cause, and those who reply that they have just created more problems because hey – who created God? Essentially people can call meaning that ends with God “absolute” if they want, but this is a semantic issue, and they haven’t really answered anything, they’ve merely pushed the question to a level slightly further removed from our everyday plane of existence.

Now I realise that I haven’t invented  the wheel here, but to my mind this whole line of thinking just somewhat validated the conclusions I have reached about life, and also made it just that much easier to live with the fact that I have to create my own meaning.  Previously I had a certain amount of angst about the fact that I can no longer bask in the simplicity of “absolute” meaning. Now, under my new paradigm, I realise that “absolute” meaning is a chimera, an impossible dream that is equally unavailable to the heretic and the devout believer alike.

I would love to hear other people’s opinion on the issue of meaning in general, and also critiques of my reasoning from those more philosophically knowledgeable than myself.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Missing the Point

Recently Yoram Hazony wrote an OpEd for the NY times which has been generating a considerable amount of discussion on the web. He basically says that the God of the Bible is not perfect is very human and maybe we should stop thinking about him so philosophically as some kind of Maimonidean "perfect being". So far I can't really argue with him. The God of the Bible is not omnipotent omniscient etc. He changes his mind, doesn't know the future gets mad, jealous, sad etc. Historically we know that Jews have not always thought of God as perfect.

However for some reason Hazony seems to think that this return to a simpler God from a simpler time provides some sort of rejoinder to the new atheist movement. As he points out such a conception solves the philosophical problem of evil. If God isn't perfect he can make mistakes and can do evil things.

However this is a very simplistic understanding of atheism. To reduce the entire challenge of atheism to the problem of evil and minor problems of philosophical coherence. These arguments are definitely employed by atheists (IMO they shouldn't be but that's another story) but new atheism amounts to a lot more then just this.

At the end of the day it all boils down to proof. Atheists don't believe in God mainly cuz he cannot be proven not because he is just too incoherent to understand. And bad news for Hazony, you can't prove an imperfect God any more than you can prove a perfect God. (Hell, if anything an imperfect God is harder to prove, because then a bunch of theistic philosophical arguments like the ontological argument for example are out the window).

Hazony if anything has made a minor dent in some tangential atheist arguments. That's about it. Maybe that's all he intended to do but I don't think it changes much about God and his nonexistence.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Two Quotes for Sukkot

From the now defunct Blogger of the 2000's Mis-nagid:

"People who believe that they have a personal relationship with a 2000-year dead man are rightly labelled insane -- unless they call their bizarre belief "religion," in which case it's labelled "faith." Mad frummies will laugh at a Hopi rain dance, opining, "Silly Indians with their ridiculous dances and chants. Don't they know that to bring rain you have to shake a fruit and intone Birkat Geshem?"

And in the same vein Spinoza in the Theological Political Treatise:

"Furthermore, human beings have very different minds, and find themselves comfortable with very different beliefs; what moves one person to devotion provokes another to laughter."

Chag Sameach Everyone! 

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Jonathan Sacks and Richard Dawkins

Watched Jonathan Sacks vs. Richard Dawkins debate. (This is not the same as Sacks' half hour program on the BBC that also included a discussion with Dawkins)

Let me start by explaining why I dont like Sacks. He does not address the questions and challenges of his opponents, is never concise, and inevitably goes off into long eloquent speeches which have almost no relationship to the topic at hand. Dawkins makes his point in few words and stays on topic. He makes arguments not speeches, and it is always clear what he means. Sacks is a preacher not a theologian and definitely not a debater and although he sounds nice, he is ill equipped (or perhaps doesn't want) to argue with the likes of a scientist and an experienced debater. 

Sacks, answer the bleeding questions! There is a segment in the discussion where Dawkins and the moderator ask Sacks whether he believes in the literalism of certain Biblical stories. Every time the moderator asks Sacks whether something literally happened in the Bible Sacks says "Yes, but..." and then proceeds to talk about how morally edifying and important the Biblical story is. That's not the question and its irrelevant. The moderator even tries reminding him to answer the question and tries to keep him on track. But he keeps talking. Because he just wants to hear his own voice and just wants to talk about how great Judaism is without addressing the crux of atheist arguments against religion.

Was the Binding of Isaac literal? "Yes.. but I want to talk about how it stopped Jews from sacrificing their children". "Did the sea really split? Yes.. but I want to talk about WHY it split..." Sacks refuses to let himself be pinned down and discuss factual claims. The second Dawkins tries to discuss things that can be addressed by science, Sacks goes off track. It's a classic diversionary tactic. Sacks wants to avoid discussing the nitty gritty of whether the Bible is history or not and wants to say short laconic "yes"s and then run away from the topic at hand and preach about morality and Judasim and blah blah blah. Sacks is clearly not used to hearing anything besides the sound of his own voice from his pulpit.

Sacks also uses the classically problematic "line of literalism" approach which I've discussed elsewhere. His criteria is "if it makes sense its literal, otherwise it's a metaphor". How convenient. Such an approach of allegorizing anything which is problematic essentially leaves one defended from all criticism. Maimonides could say it, but we cannot.

Also enough Bullshit about how enlightened Judaism is. "Judaism encourages questions" "Judaism encourages challenging beliefs" Sacks even has the audacity to say that were Salman Rushdi Jewish "we would have welcomed him with open arms". Well, Sacks, we are glad that if YOU were running the show things would be so hunky dory, but unfortunately you don't run the show and MOST Jews do not share you enlightened views. Were you sleeping during the Slifkin affair? Have you ever seen a pashekvil in your life? Are Charedim not part of Judaism according to you, cuz I promise you that were Salman Rushdi a Charedi or even anything besides a Left Wing Modern Orthodox Jew, they would've kicked him out in a second.

This is classic sugar coating, classic no-true-scotsman-REAL-Judaism-is-enlightened-and -lovely - rubbish. You cannot take your own views and just DECIDE that they represent a huge and variegated religion.

But wait a second this bring something to mind actually... Louis Jacobs remember him, Sacks? What about Hugo Gryn? Were they encouraged to ask questions? Did YOU encourage them to ask questions?  Do YOU even believe the stuff you're saying about how enlightened Judaism is and how it accepts kofrim with open arms?

Jonathan Sacks is nothing more than a more educated, more eloquent version of Shmuley Boteach.  

Monday, 10 September 2012

A Conversation on the Way

I was asked to do a review on the book A Conversation on the Way by Martin Bodek. 

The book is essentially a long dialogue that takes place between two Yidden (Jews) on their way to shul.

The one Yid is a fairly well (presumably self-)educated guy who loves to learn new things and loves to indulge in theological and philosophical Jewish questions. Despite his claims that he believes in God, Judaism, etc. he evinces characteristics of a typical Jewish skeptic, who has read more than the prescribed Yeshiva reading list and knows that evolution is true, the world isn't 5773 years old and lo and behold Chazal didn't get it all right. Despite his skepticism he seems very (almost overly) enthusiastic about pursuing these issues and does not seem bothered by the threats that these things pose to Jewish faith. He reminds me a lot of the blogger DovBear, pretty much adopting every skeptical approach possible, but then saying at the end "But I still believe because of my upbringing and that's perfectly ok!"

The other Yid, who has a  lot less to say, seems to be some sort of yeshivish Yeshiva guy. His favorite answer to Yid1's various challenges are answers like "God can do anything", "God can make it look 1 million years old" etc. Although many of his responses are typical of the average Yeshiva guy, with little education beyond the pages of a Talmud, he nevertheless is unique for a Yeshiva bochur in that he doesn't run away from Yid1 who is spouting tons of what the Yeshiva world considers Kefira. Yid2 is fairly confident that while Yid1 is a clever guy he's got it all wrong and he's not gonna convince him otherwise.

Anyways Yid1 and Yid2 walk to shul and basically discuss everything that Jewish skeptics and believers have been  talking about for years. The book doesn't get into academic depth, but it is a rather realistic portrayal of a real conversation an average skeptic and an average (yeshivish) believer would have. They broach on dozens of topics at a dizzying pace discussing the age of the world, questions of morality, what constitutes a miracle, whether Genesis makes sense (they discuss Genesis 1-7 at great length), what Science and religion have to do with each other, the DH and everything in between.

I particularly liked Yid1's argument against the 5770 year old word and the "God-can-do-anything-even-trick-us-with-fake-bones defense". Technically one can always assert this and say "Well we can't trust our senses and maybe God's testing us and God can put bones in the ground etc. etc." However what Yid1 did was to show HOW MUCH we have to mistrust the world around us in order to assert that the world is only 5770 years old. Its not just dinosaur fossils and the Mabul can't explain it all and the Yeshivish position leaves one with a world that is more misleading than the Matrix.

In general Yid1 doesn't defeat Yid2 in arguments (in real life no one wins arguments). He just takes them ad absurdum and says "so basically if you believe abc and d then you would HAVE to believe efg and H!"

Too which Yid2 usually answers triumphantly "Yup!"

I think this book is the type of thing a Yeshivish guy entrenched in his dogmatism should read. It's sort of a introduction, or a "cliff's notes" (to quote Yid1) of the questions of skepticism, and is a good way to begin to approach a critical understanding of religion as opposed to traditional acceptance of everything. To the skeptic it is an interesting presentation of skeptic-believer arguments. I thought of it as a sort of compilation of the arguments raging between believers and non-believers on the skeptical-jewish blogosphere over the past 8 years.

I wish the book would have been more of a dialogue. Yid2 was not the most educated fella in the world and due to ignorance of just about everything he was fair game for Yid1. Although Yid2's ignorance and types of responses accurately reflect the average philosophical position of most Yeshiva people, it reduced the book to very one sided conversation.

P.S. After writing this review I realized that the Yids have names which get mentioned once at the beginning of the book Zachary and Joe (which I assume is Zecharia and Yehoshua!)

Thursday, 19 July 2012

There is No Room For the Individual

It's important to remember that religion works for some people. When it comes to these things I tend to be a huge relativist. Although I've found a path that works for me that does not mean that it works for everyone and anyone who says that secularism or atheism is a better way of life is simply dogmatic IMHO.

For some people religion is the best thing. It makes their lives better and sometimes they need it to go on. Some people have such shitty lives that they need a religion to keep them going in the morning and some people have perfect lives but still yearn for the assurances of religion.

The crime of religion is its inability to realize that different paths work for different people. Most religions claim that their path works for everyone which is such a load of crap. No system or philosophy can work for everyone. People are all too different from each other for one system to cover them all and make all their lives better. Religious parents can't understand why their children refuse to be shoved into a template that works for them even if that template doesn't work for their children. They speak in absolutes and do not leave any room for individuality.

And yes Jewish Philosophy is as variegated as people in the world but Jewish Law is not. Jewish law is the same for everyone no matter their temperament or preferences.  This is the nature of Law in general. Whereas philosophy can accommodate different views Law cannot.

The saddest thing is watching people who are dedicated to Jewish Law struggling to keep a system that is not compatible with them. They cry because they are not good enough for the system. They wish they could keep the 613 mitzvot but they are not able. And they pray to God to make them better people. But the system will not budge for them and their personalities will not budge for the system. A person can only modify their own nature so much before they lose it.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

The Future of Israel

IMHO it looks bleak.

Facts: Chareidim in general (there are of course exceptions) do not believe that democracy and liberalism have much value. They do not believe that every Jew should be allowed to do what he or she wishes. They say this. They write this. They are not hiding it from everybody. Their ideal form of government is one run by "gedolim". Political parties like Shas, which are driven by the outspoken "Gadol" Ovadya Yosef, are a foreshadowing of what Chareidim expect from politics i.e. a country run by Da'as Torah - which means run by the authoritative decisions of Gedolim.

Problem: Chareidim in general do not use contraception and therefore are growing at almost 5 to 10 times the rate of the secular population. Their demographic domination of the Israeli Jewish population seems inevitable.

The Future: A Theocratic state similar to Iran, where a council of "gedolim" can veto laws OR "gedolim" or askanim are the main political movers and shakers. Israel is not known for its clear cut separation of church and state and AS IT IS a large part of the countries laws are completely religion is nature (Marriage and divorce for just one example) this existing trend will be taken further to include state mandated laws of Kashrut, Shabbat etc. TV and internet will be heavily censored.

Hope: The Chareidim of tomorrow will not be the Chareidim of today. As they begin to become a larger percentage of the population they will be forced to start to working and be less insulated.

Despair: They will still be very religious and have very little respect for democracy or personal freedom. Working and leaving the ghetto does not automatically make you more tolerant.

Am I missing some mitigating factors here?

Thursday, 24 May 2012

The xoJane Article

This article (Read it if you haven't) pissed me off to no end. It was tendentious and terribly misleading. This was the comment I wrote on the blog.

This is a very misleading article. I'm very happy that the author does not feel imprisoned and enjoys her "Chassidic" life, but honestly her experience is not indicative of the general Chassidic world. Let's discuss a few of her  points:
1. "We are not imprisoned". Ok I doubt most people think that Chassidic women are literally put behind bars. But what happens when you have a three kids by the time you're 20? You don't think that's a form of imprisonment? What about pressures from the community? What if you are forced to choose between what you want and what the community wants. I wouldn't describe it as imprisonment perse but its a form of oppressive societal pressure. 
2. "Jews never got a message that sex is dirty". Yes, Judaism generally sees sex as a positive thing but mostly only because it helps procreation. There is also a strong trend of sexual-suppression in Chassidic communities. This means that you are never allowed to talk to girls let alone touch them until the day of your wedding. Forget sex outside of marriage you can't have a frikkin conversation out of marriage. 
3. "You think we are sexually repressed and afraid of our own bodies just because we dress modestly? Every single Chassidic woman you see sticks her own fingers in her own vagina at least twice a day for 7 days of the month". Oh gimme a break, that's not to masturbate, its to check your blood. Sticking a finger in your vagina  for a second to check for blood hardly counts and the topic of female masturbation is super-taboo in Orthodox communities. 

There are tons of things wrong with this article, it sugar coats things, and cherry picks the things that make Judaism and Chassidism sound "cool". But unfortunately the reality is quite different. 

Turns out, surprise surprise, that the author of this article is not only Chabad but a ba'alat teshuva. I'm not surprised at all. Here is a list of links of people discussing this piece:

Sunday, 20 May 2012

The Danger of Alternatives

Garnel said:

The internet is merely a more convenient form of the library.
What is needed by users in both cases is a healthy dose of intellectual honest and skepticism.
So some scholars think Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, might not have existed?  Why believe them?
Some modern Biblical scholars don't believe in the antiquity of the Bible?  What makes them more authoritative than the ones that do? 


Why are you only skeptical of one side?

This brings up a good point. 

Let's think about this. 

 I, like most people, was raised believing in a heliocentric Solar System i.e. that the Sun is at the center of the Solar System. I don't usually ponder this question. I take it as a given. I've never bothered to even look at the proofs that the Sun is actually at the center of the Solar System. So I go on with my life, I go to work, eat my supper and occasionally watch some TV and assume all along that the Earth orbits around the Sun. 

Then one day I surf the internet. And I find a fascinating article that claims that many major scientists actually question whether the Sun is at the center of the Solar System. In fact they say that the Earth is at the center of the Solar System. And they claim to have ironclad proofs to demonstrate this!

Suddenly my assumptions about a heliocentric solar system are not so true. I have to start questioning what I used to take as obvious. Maybe now I start looking at the proofs for a heliocentric solar system. Maybe I compare them to the merits of a geocentric solar system. 

In short nothing is as simple as it used to be. 

Here's the kicker. It doesn't actually matter whether or not I'm certain that the geocentric folks are correct or not. Now, I'm not gonna be so cocky and certain that the Sun is at the middle of the solar system. An important and dramatic shift has occurred in my worldview. Originally the heliocentric solar system was something I never questioned at all. It barely crossed my mind. But NOW that I know that MAYBE just maybe there is another opinion. Now I'm in the realm of doubt. 

So you see it doesn't matter whether I fully believe the scholars who says Moses didn't exist are right. When I'm growing up I assume that Moses existed. Its as obvious to me as the heliocentric solar system. I never question it. I never think about it. Now, suddenly the cornerstone of my life, an axiom that tells me what to do in the morning, what blessings to say what God to pray to, is no longer axiomatic. I have to start thinking whether Moses existed. I have to determine it. 

I might decide that the evidence proves that Moses did exist. I might decide the opposite. Or I might decide that one cannot tell one way or the other and therefore the efficacy of me following the dictates of this "Moses" cannot be proven one way or another. 

Learning about alternatives, even if you don't initially believe them, is still "dangerous". 

Monday, 14 May 2012


I don't know what they're gonna discuss at the Asifa but I'm pretty sure it's not just porn that's worrying our Gedolim.

The internet is a hotbed of Kefira! Now obviously a good Ben Torah will stay away from pernicious blogs like Shilton HaSechel (with a name like that you gotta be careful!) but what about those little tidbits of information that hit you by surprise.

If you're anything like me you've probably gotten bored before and done some Wikipedia surfing. The truth is Wikipedia paves the path to Hell!

Let's say I decide to search "Torah" on Wikipedia. Boom! Right away I'm bombarded with Kefira:

"Most Modern biblical scholars believe that the written books were a product of the Babylonian exilic period (c.600 BCE) and that it was completed by the Persian period (c.400 BCE).

What if I search "Moses"

Same thing, kefira, kefira kefira! 

"The existence of Moses as well as the veracity of the Exodus story is disputed amongst archaeologists and Egyptologists, with experts in the field of biblical criticism citing logical inconsistencies, new archaeological evidence, historical evidence, and related origin myths in Canaanite culture."

Now you'll probably disregard these things if you have the proper training, but eventually they might just get to you. Compare this to the state of affairs BEFORE the internet. The only way I could find out about the Documentary Hypothesis or evolution or anything was if I went to a library and specifically looked it up. It was most rare to stumble upon these sorts of kefiradick ideas. 

The internet is very dangerous because it might just expose you to ideas and theories which contradict your current worldview! 

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Yom Ha'atzmaut

The big question used to be whether or not to pray Hallel on Yom Ha'atzmaut - Israeli Independence day, thanking God for creating the State of Israel. Charedim generally do not do this either because they don't see the State of Israel as a blessing or because of more technical objections to liturgical innovation.

I always said Hallel because I liked the State of Israel and considered it very important.

However, following my skepticism, I stopped doing this because I decided it was against the true spirit of Yom Ha'atzmaut. Yom Ha'atzmaut is a human day. The Zionist pioneers decided to leave God behind in Europe and start new lives and become new Jews. They decided that the Messiah would not come by sitting in shuls fervently praying for a heavenly savior. Rather the redemption could only be brought about by human means. It was these people who led the re-creation of the Jewish State, and started the third commonwealth.

Yes, Religious Jews did take part in the Zionist enterprise and until this day believe that human endeavor and divine intervention can mesh together, however they were neither the leaders nor the majority of the Zionist movement, (though today things are changing).

Although obviously religious Zionists will disagree with me, to me Yom Ha'atzmaut is testament to human struggle and victory, the power of a dream, and the secular "redemption" of the Jewish Nation. It is not about divine intervention, the Jewish God or heavenly victory.

The Secular Zionists sang "who can praise the victories of Israel, who can count them?"

This replaced a Biblical verse which read "who can praise the victories of God, who can count them?"

Monday, 16 April 2012

Back to Russel and "The Emotions of the Heart"

Been having an email correspondence and a discussion of this statement of Bertrand Russel's came up (it's my favorite one):

There are two objections to the practice of basing beliefs as to objective fact upon the emotions of the heart. One is that there is no reason whatever to suppose that such beliefs will be true; the other is, that the resulting beliefs will be private, since the heart says different things to different people.

Let me explain:

Russel's point about the heart speaking different things to different people is that it cannot serve as a source of objectivity. A Christian thinks that Jesus was an incarnation of God because this is what his heart tells him and a Jew believes he was not ALSO because his heart tells him. Therefore one cannot establish an objective answer to the question was Jesus an incarnation of God, or any other religious question for that matter based on one's heart. 

As to Russel's second point. The difference between Maths and logic on the one hand and "the heart" on the other hand is we DO have reason to to suppose that such beliefs will be true. What is this reason - you may ask. The answer, i believe is twofold:

1. Maths and logic have accomplished concrete things. Ultimately all fields of science derive from certain assumptions about logic and math, and these assumptions have led to the creation of rocketships, medicines, cars and all sorts of things - thus demonstrating that these fields have some basis in reality. The ability of Maths and logic to manipulate what we perceive as reality is evidence to its own reality. The dictates of the heart, on the other hand, have never been used to manipulate reality effectively.

2. Maths and logic are universally accepted. No one argues that 1 and 1 make two and that half of a circle is less than a square. It is this universal acceptance that gives these fields validity beyond the human heart. The dictates of the heart, however, are not universally accepted as attested to by the stunning proliferation of countless variegated faiths. 

That is my פירוש of Russel. 

Monday, 19 March 2012

The Smart Folks Who DON'T Believe It

Chaim Sofek asked:

i would like to like at the other side why did only we (otd, undercovered) came to this conclusion that its not true are we more educated or smarter then everyone who stays jewish? 

In other words why were we not smart enough to defend Judaism to ourselves? Why can James Kugel believe in the DH buy still remain Orthodox while we can't? Are we smarter than him? Do we know something he doesn't know? 

I can't speak for other people but I can speak for myself. It is my belief that the reason this stuff got to me was not because of the content of it but rather because of the way I found out.

In other words a bunch of coincidental factors contributed to it:

1. No one ever told me that there was a DH. I'd heard of this vague thing called Bible Criticism but I didn't realize how developed it was. Similarly I found out that Karaites exist nowadays and reject the Talmud! Something else I had not been aware of. I began realizing that a lot of very normal people simply rejected things I had always taken for granted. 

In contrast, learning about evolution never phased me because I'd grown up with the proper defenses. I had been openly taught about evolution and it had been explained to me that God guided evolution, that 6 days of creation were not literal etc. In other words I'd incorporated the problem into my personal theology and didn't think of it as a problem because, in my mind, תשובתו בצדו - the answer was always there. I could only think of the problem of evolution and the answer to that problem as one thing, and to me the problem never stood by itself. 

If I'd been raised fully knowing what the DH said but at the same time been raised with the solution, even a lame solution, I doubt that it would have gotten to me at all. 

2. I was very scared of the consequences of learning these things and therefore instead of facing them head on  I tried to ignore them (like good Jews should!) and let them simmer for about 6 years in my head until they effectively eroded my faith. Had I been mature enough at the time to face these problems I might have built up some sort of intellectual defense before my faith was gone.

3. Once your faith is gone its gone. And therefore when I was older and learned new and ingenious defenses of Judaism it did not matter because the faith was gone. I could intellectually defend Judaism but I could not rebuild a childhood feeling which had slowly disappeared. 

This is my own theory about myself and I wrote about this a bit on the interview on Coin Laundry's blog: 

So if I had to sum it up I'd say a series of coincidences led me down the path I did, and if a few things had been different I might be learning in Kollel in Bnei Brak today. 

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

All the Smart Folks Believe It

E said...

One thing I will say about my statement that there is reason to believe is that ultimately there are a number of intelligent people out there that have read everything you have read, know everything you know and still believe in the Torah. I am aware that there aren't that many people that fit this description. I am also aware that not all of them are intellectually honest. But, I hope we can agree on this, these people do exist. (That doesn't mean they're right. There are lots of very clever and knowledgable atheists and I'm not an atheist.) I presume these people have a reason for believing the Torah is more than just an interesting ANE text. I think you'd do better asking people that fit the above description rather than me why they believe. Reasons for believing exist, whether you find them convincing or not.

Before people jump on him, I want to say that E brings up a very important point. I personally have met people who know everything I do and have read everything I read and YET still believe in Judaism. I'll go one step further I personally know people who believe in the Documentary Hypothesis, agree that you can't prove God exists and STILL believe in Judaism (and keep it devoutly!). This is an extremely interesting phenomenon and seeing this phenomenon has led me to the conclusion that believing in Judaism or not believing in Judaism has very little to do with intelligence. Some people out there would expect there to be a direct correlation between intelligence and NOT believing in Judaism but that's simply not true, as we know some of the greatest Rabbis were simply geniuses, and STILL believed this stuff. And we're not just talking about brainwashed uneducated Rabbis, even Rabbis who knew all the facts and read all the literature buy Judaism.

So what's it all about?

Firstly I have to quote Michael Shermer on this one. In his book Why People Believe Weird Things: He makes a bold but insightful statement: "Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non smart reasons."

Michael Shermer in this pithy little statement has summed up a whole lot of human psychology. Generally speaking people arrive at their beliefs for non-intelligent reasons. Once they already have a belief they will prop it up with "explanations", "justifications".

Now, I'm not saying this is inconceivable, but I would be extremely interested to meet someone who grew up an atheist or agnostic, learned everything about the DH and proofs of God and everything us skeptics know, and then in spite of all this decided Judaism was correct. Now THAT would be a person worth talking too, because as far as I know most intelligent informed people who believe in Judaism despite knowing about skepticism and Biblical criticism etc. are Frum From Birth. (e.g. Louis Jacobs, James Kugel, etc.) In other words they believed in Judaism from the beginning, faced some challenges to it, and then summarily solved these problems with a bit of ingenuity.

This is important because it would add a degree of objectivity to the question. If Judaism was logically sound, as opposed to merely logically defensible, we would expect people to flock to it the way they do to Science and mathematics and other objective things. The fact that people don't, in my mind, shows that Judaism is defensible, but not justifiable, from a logical perspective.

More about this in another post...

Sunday, 11 March 2012

No Proof

Just want to follow up on my post from the other day about Torah and Science etc.

A lot of discussion went into the comments about science and Torah and all that and I just want to stress again, that even though it's interesting to discuss, its really irrelevant, because there is no proof that the Torah is anything more than an interesting ANE book. 

You can say the Torah doesn't contradict Science. You can say that it alludes to scientific ideas, but ultimately expecting to find science in the Torah is like expecting to find science in the Epic of Gilgamesh or in the Iliad. (I'm pretty sure that someone could read one of these ANE god-stories as alluding to different elements combining to create different parts of the universe, someone with enough time on their hands should give it a try.)

Once again, it all boils down to proof, can anyone prove that the Torah is anything more than an ANE religious text? I personally don't think so.

Friday, 9 March 2012

It's not Just Torah It's Science!

Nathan Aviezer wrote a book called In the Beginning: Biblical Creation and Science

Then Mark Perach from talk reason wrote a critique of the book on talk reason.

Now on Hirhurim Aviezer wrote a response to Perach. (Only took him about 12 years...)

Ok now that you're all caught up let me say a few thoughts.

Aviezer's book has a lot of different things in it but one that really get on my nerves is the assertion that there is correspondence between the scientific theory of the Big Bang and the Biblical account of Creation. (i.e. the universe has a beginning in both accounts) This is a silly assertion not because the Big Bang isn't true (which seemed to be Perach's assertion, strangely enough...) even if its proven beyond a doubt its correspondence with the Genesis story is completely irrelevant. Because:

What about all the things in the Torah that do not correspond with science? Like men living for thousands of years? Global floods? Oh yeah what about the world and everything in it being created in six days! I'm sure there are explanations for these things, maybe they're allegorical etc. but it seems weird to boldly claim that the Torah corresponds with science because the first verse - sorry, the first verse and nothing else - corresponds with science.

This is classic sharpshooter fallacy. 

Any man could have sat in the ANE and written a book about demons and goblins and wars between Gods. And maybe this man would have written about big dragons with long necks. And then suddenly a bunch of idiots would be claiming that this is an account of dinosaurs! Oh the correspondence with science! How edifying!

Anyone writing a long fanciful account about creation and giants and who knows what else has a chance of saying something true. This does not mean the author knew that he was saying something true.

It's essentially a win win for adherents to these types of books.

If something in the holy book does not correspond with science: then it's an allegory or a moshol or who knows.

If something in the holy book DOES correspond with science: then we win! Our book knew science before science new science. Hurray!

You simply cannot write a holy book that doesn't correspond with science because there's always the allegory technique and every now and then you might stumble upon a bit of science and just make people believe.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

God vs. Religion

Ultimately I think the question of whether God exists is irrelevant to religion.

God = a creator, an infinite being, a first cause, etc. None of these understandings of God say anything about religion.

It is possible that God exist? I have no idea, maybe he does maybe he doesn't. However let's say he exists. Let's say one accepts proofs of a first cause or something to create ex nihilo. What have you gained? Nothing about these proofs tells you that God has an interest in men or in giving a strict law code. None of these proofs tell us that God cares about men and most importantly none of these proofs have anything to do with Judaism. You can firmly believe in God but deny Judaism.

Ultimately the only important proof in Judaism is that God revealed himself at some point. Certain thinkers understood this, notably the Kuzari who doesn't base Judaism on a philosophical proof of God but rather on a "historical proof" of the "Kuzari proof".

So why do kiruv agencies and speakers etc. bother "proving God"? Why is it important to them?

I think this is just evidence of the way many of these proofs are formulated. What I mean is that proofs of God are generally made as post-hoc justifications of one's religious beliefs. People believe something and then try to look back at their rather irrational beliefs and try justifying it.

However since these people firmly believe anyways its not so important that the proof exactly match up with the belief.

As long as rational activity about one aspect of the religion can be demonstrated a believer can reflect upon his/her religion and say "hey this religion isn't irrational it's rather clever and it can be proven".

What's important to the believer is the activity of making rational justification not the actual thing proven. Because ultimately the believer doesn't need the proof. The proof is just a way of showing that religion in general is rational. And once God can be proven rationally we make a la pligi and say that all of religion is rational even if we can't quite show how....

Wednesday, 22 February 2012


If you don't live in a hole you know that there has been much ado lately about Chareidim in Israel, spitting on little girls in Beit Shemesh, making women going to the back of the bus, burning down un-tznius stores.  (I'm a little bit late to this but whatever...)

The chareidi warcry about all this is: "It's not us, it's the extremists!"

I think a lot of people miss this point so i'll elaborate on it. Even if most Chareidim disavow the sikrikim  (=Chareidi extremists) - which isn't even necessarily true - this does not address the problem. What people have to realize is that extremists don't exist in a vacuum.

Why do we not find Modern Orthodox people reaching the same levels of extremism? The answer is obvious: Fundamentalism breeds violence. Chareidism (which is obviously not a monolithic thing but we will use the term to characterize Ultra-Orthodox Jews, forgive the stereotype) and its uncompromising ethos allows such behavior to thrive. Although Chareidism may not openly advocate violence like this it prepares the ground for it.

The only difference between sikrikim and more quiet Chareidim is that sikrikim, unlike their more moderate brethren, take Chareidism seriously If Modernity and Secularism and the outside world truly are existential threats to the Jewish people then why be quiet about it? If everyone is out to make the world tamei (impure) then why sit down and let it happen? Grow some balls and bring a stop to it! This is the attitude of these extremists and it directly follows from a Chareidi philosophy that sees secularism as an existential threat.

So people who blame the atrocities on extremists are failing to realize that extremists come from somewhere and in this case they come from communities that see the outside world as evil and threatening.


hey folks! (if anyone still follows this blog)

was wondering if anyone would be interested in me continuing my old series on the Documentary Hypothesis. Maybe I'll just write an Ebook and upload it here?

Or does anyone have anything they'd like me to post about it?