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!)