Thursday, 12 September 2013

Response to: "Kippah and Gown: Rethinking Orthodoxy and Biblical Criticism I"

On Torah Musings Orthodox Jewish Bible academic Joshua Berman discusses the problems of Bible criticism and argues that while many jump to criticize the Orthodox approach to the Bible less people are willing to deal with the major problems with more critical approaches. Therefore Prof. Berman takes it upon himself to give his own responses to source criticism presumably in able to buttress the Orthodox unified theory of the Pentateuch. I will analyze his "critique of source criticism" in order to show why IMHO, he fails to make convincing arguments against source criticism. This is not to say that there aren't problems with the DH and Biblical criticism. And this is also not to say that Biblical criticism is necessarily true. However the specific arguments JB presents are, in my opinion, not convincing. 
Before embarking on this discussion it is worth noting that any dichotomy between "Orthodox approach" and "source critical approach" is false. All of the arguments JB presents below represent critiques of the source critical approach. If JB is correct in his assessment then his critique would suggest that the Pentateuch was not compiled by a number of different authors, but rather was composed by one author. While this may be true, this is not the Orthodox approach. Though unity is certainly a major assumption in Orthodox Bible studies two other factors are much more important and these are 1. Divinity and 2. Composition in the time period of Moses. Disproving Bible criticism does not automatically make 1 and 2 true.
Perhaps JB has no intention of proving 1 and 2 by refuting Bible criticism but then I do have to wonder why the title of his article presents the two dichotomously: "Rethinking Orthodoxy and Biblical Criticism" and the first section is called "Orthodox Judaism and Biblical Criticism". If 
Below in red is the text of JB's third section ("III. Critiquing Source Criticism") with my comments in black. 

First, source criticism must give an accounting of the final shape of the Torah before us. If these are the works of competing and opposing historians, how and why were their conflicting histories sown together? The author of the Samaritan Pentateuch (c. 5th-4th c. BCE) was so bothered by some of these discrepancies that he edited the text to harmonize the accounts. Couldn’t the hypothesized redactor of the Torah see these problems as well? Why did he choose to retain multiple, conflicting accounts? It is often surmised that the Torah is an anthology of different traditions of Israel’s history, and that the upheaval occasioned by the destruction of the Temple and the Exile forced Israel’s leaders to bring these traditions together. This posits a form of composition that has no precedent anywhere in the ancient world. Nearly every ancient culture that we know of experienced cataclysm at one point or another in its history. 
So perhaps JB is criticizing the prevailing opinion in the field (which I must admit I am no expert in) but I do have to wonder if this argument (as well as others below) does not represent a strawman. As JB stresses many times we do not know exactly how different sources got smushed together. JB seems to assume that one editor took the pieces and sewed them together. If this is the prevailing opinion in the field then fine, I understand why it is a little strange. However I don't see why we have to assume that one author took the texts with the intention of sewing them together. I would think that it is more likely that someone merely wanted to copy a collection of different Israelite histories into one scroll or set of scrolls and this anthology was later received or believed to be one text. The conflicting histories were not sown together they were merely put together for easy reference (just like the 12 prophets are put together in one book even though each one was written by a different author). The editor had no intention of creating a new unified text but later his anthological creation was interpreted as such. This has to at least be a possibility... Also while I'm sure there are scholars that say that this hodgepodge creation is a response to some sort of an upheaval I hardly think that this particular interpretation is a necessary component of Bible criticism. 

Nowhere do we see that the embattled culture responds by assembling its conflicting historical traditions under one cover. The one distantly similar phenomenon sometimes cited as a model for this hypothesized form of redaction is in fact the most telling: In the second century, the church apologist Tatian combined the four accounts of the life of Jesus found in the gospels into a single work known as the Diatessaron. Yet, as he did so, he took four often conflicting works and endeavored to produce a harmonious narrative. The source critical approach posits exactly the opposite: originally integral and coherent narratives were combined producing disharmony.
What we do find fairly commonly, at least in the Middle Ages among Jewish scribes, is that people will often take a number of different texts written by different authors at different times and include them in one manuscript without distinguishing between different sections (although this is usually true of theological-mystical texts and not history texts I still believe that it can serve as some sort of precedent) . JB's use of the phrase "under one cover" is anachronistic IMHO. In ancient times books were not always well defined things. When someone put the five books into the Pentateuch into one "book" I do not know if his intention was to create "a book" with defined boundaries. The fact that this hodgepodge text was later interpreted as being encompassed by "one cover" does not mean that it was originally put together like this. 

Moreover, this theory of an anthology of histories has no external evidence. There is no epigraphic record (inscriptions or documents) from either the land of Israel, Babylon or Persia that mentions this process. There is no epigraphic evidence of either the version of history found in Devarim or of the alternative versions found in the other books as separate, independent works.Nor is there any evidence for this approach within the other books of the Tanakh itself. That is, we do not find any book outside of the Torah that seems to rely solely on the history found in Devarim or solely on the version found in the other books. The theory that the Torah represents an anthology of traditions of Israel’s history stems solely from the supposition that these histories are contradictory. Once these discrepancies are interpreted as contradictory, a hypothesis must be adduced to account for their combination under one cover.

This (since we haven't found J or E so therefore they might not exist) is an argument from silence. Arguments from silence are important historical tools but only in cases where we expect to hear noise and we only hear silence. This argument would be far more convincing if we had lots of epigraphic historical books from the time period but didn't find any independent J or E documents. However the truth is that we lack any Hebrew books from the first Temple Period. We have literally nothing, only small inscriptions on rocks and clay. But nothing that can be called a book. So I have to wonder, is the absence of evidence of J and E evidence of absence when the Torah as whole is absent from the epigraphic material from this time period? If we follow JB's argumentum ad silentio then we would have to conclude that the Torah did not exist until the Second Temple Period, which is certainly not a win for Orthodoxy.

Second, it is unclear what motivates the so-called historian who is credited with having written the accounts of Devarim. When someone wrote a history in the ancient world (and maybe also the not-so-ancient world…), it was with an agenda in mind. The difficulty this presents for the standard source critical approach is best understood with reference to a retelling of history elsewhere: the account of the two monarchies in Divrei Hayamim as opposed to the account found in Shmuel and Melakhim. Divrei Hayamim reveals several consistent phenomena that distinguish it from Shmuel and Melakhim. Divrei Hayamim recounts virtually no disparaging accounts of the life of David. Divrei Hayamim places much more emphasis on the Mikdash than is found in the earlier books. The book’s writer demonstrates a clear agenda of promoting the Davidic dynasty and temple.

But what of the hypothesized historian who composed Devarim? Here, it turns out, it is difficult to identify a consistent agenda for the details provided across its several stories. It isn’t as though Devarim is a “pro-Moshe” account while the earlier versions are “pro-Aharon,” or Devarim “pro-David” while the earlier accounts are “pro-Sha’ul.” We would expect an altered history to reflect a consistently different theme than its rejected version.
Yes almost every ancient history book has an agenda. However an agenda does not automatically equal a polemic. These are two different things and JB seems to be conflating them. Let's say Devarim had an agenda. Fine. Does this agenda have to be contrary to other agendas in other proto-Torah documents? Maybe all of the different accounts support similar agendas and were simply written by different authors with slightly different traditions? I don't see why one source MUST have a different agenda than another.

Truth be told, there is one difference that runs throughout the accounts of Devarim: Israel is consistently portrayed more negatively in the stories of Devarim than in the other accounts. For example, while God told Moshe to send spies in Bamidbar, in Devarim it is the people who push Moshe to do so. Moshe is punished for his own sins in Bamidbar but in Devarim he is punished for the people’s sin. This emphasis does not explain every detail but it is highly present in each of the retold narratives. But whose interest—priestly, Davidic, northern, southern, etc.—is served by retelling the stories in this way?
Maybe one author described Israel more harshly than the other but both wanted to promote the agenda of teaching the reader that when Israel acts bad they get punished. Again could be the same agenda and just slightly different traditions. 

Third, it is difficult to understand why the hypothesized historian chooses to rewrite precisely these seven or eight stories.

Who says he's rewriting? Maybe two authors received similar traditions and each one wrote it their own way? Or they each received slightly different traditions? Maybe the two authors never read each others works. JB is arguing with a very rigidly defined model of Bible criticism which to me seems unnecessary. Yes if the only definition of Bible criticism = a Deuteronomical author responding polemically to J and E authors and this polemical response being incorporated into a book with "one cover" then yes you might have some questions.

The author of Divrei Hayamim, too, retells history selectively, but he covers the whole period of the monarchy. In Devarim, the historian inserts changes in wholesale fashion in every story he recounts. Yet, it is also clear that he is familiar with the Exodus from Egypt and with the Patriarchs. Is it not strange that he saw fit to change so much about a seemingly minor story such as the appointing of judges but has nothing at all of his own to say about the Exodus or the Patriarchs?
Well that's because Devarim is not a history book. It is a speech which Moses is giving to Bnei Yisroel in the Midbar (most of which is about mitzvot not history!) This speech discusses history as much as it furthers the main point of Moses' speech which is "be good and keep the mitzvot or you will get in trouble in the Land". The reason he left out a detailed account of the Patriarchs is for the simple reason that it's not relevant. I dunno where JB got this idea that Devarim, acc. to Bible Criticism, has no goal whatsoever except to polemicize with the histories laid out in J E and P. If there are Bible Critics who say this then I'm very disapointed...

Fourth, the hypothesis of a separate and competing history is compromised by the fact that the accounts of Devarim do not constitute a stand-alone work. Divrei Hayamim never refers the reader back to Shmuel and Melakhim. Readers may make connections themselves between the texts but Divrei Haymim never asks the reader to do so. From an academic perspective, one can read Divrei Hayamim as a stand-alone history to be read entirely in place of Shmuel and Melakhim, and the story makes sense (even if Chaza”l, typically, did not read these books in this way). 
Once again Devarim is not a history book its a speech (unlike Shmuel and Divrei HaYamim which ARE history books).

Crucially, this is not so of the accounts in Devarim. Even as Devarim introduces changes, it also relies on the reader’s knowledge of the earlier versions. Devarim presupposes the reader’s ability to fill in details known to us only from earlier stories, such as the reference to Calev’s exemption from divine wrath (1:36), the sin of Baal Peor (4:3), God’s anger at Aharon (9:20) and the punishment that befell Miriam (24:9). The accounts of Devarim, therefore, are not stand-alone alternative histories but rather supplements that refer back to the earlier versions it supposedly rejects, expecting the audience to be familiar with them.
JB is assuming that Devarim is referring to the accounts of Biblical history that we have. (I.e. Bereishit-Bamidbar). However I'm gonna guess that in the time of the temple there were various traditions and ideas about Israel's past. If you go to someone today and ask them a question about Adolph Hitler, you don't generally need to explain to them that you are referring to the German fascist dictator from WWII. However this is not because you and the person you have asked read the same book or Wikipedia article about WWII but is rather just a matter of general knowledge. Similarly Devarim is clearly catering to an audience familiar with certain aspects of Biblical history. However this may be the general knowledge of the time and may not necessarily mean that the audience was meant to have read a specific account of this Biblical history. We nowadays don't have this general knowledge so we have to rely on the few specific books we have. But, I presume, things were different back then...

Fifth, the narratives of Devarim have a peculiar narratological aspect about them. Most of the stories in the Tanakh are related in third person, by what is sometimes referred to in narratological terms as the “omniscient scribe.” The “narrator” in most passages is detached and objective, representing God’s view of things, as it were. Were the accounts of Devarim the work of a competing historian, why would he present his version in the subjective voice of Moshe? Consider, especially, the fact that Moshe recounts his own failures within these narratives. These accounts are not presented as objective fact but as a call to recollection. Repeatedly, Moshe tells Israel to recall what happened ba’et ha-hi, “at that time” – some nine times over all. Wouldn’t this competing historian want to portray his version in the same authoritative voice of the “omniscient scribe” as is found nearly everywhere else?
Unless the voice of Moses, the leader of Israel and the giver of the law is more authoritative than an anonymous voice. The assumption that anonymous third person = omniscient scribe is a nice idea but it may not be true. Throughout history people have attributed books to important people to make them authoritative. Why should Devarim be any different. JB is also, once again. assuming our author of Devarim is competing with other authors, which, as I've shown, is not necessarily true.

Sixth, and finally, why is this phenomenon of extended conflicting histories limited to the Torah? We have, it is true, two histories of the monarchy, Shmuel/Melakhim and Divrei Hayamim, but those have come down to us as two separate works. Within the Torah we have two histories of the wandering in the desert – one in Shemot-Bamidbar and one in Devarim. Why don’t we have multiple versions of the accounts of the judges within the book of Judges? Or of the career of Sha”ul, within the Sefer Shmuel? If there were, in fact, competing traditions of Israel’s history that were all anthologized at a certain point in time, why are accounts retold in this fashion within a single work only in the Torah, and only with regard to a portion of the desert history?
According to many Bible scholars there are different accounts of Shaul in Sefer Shmuel. Furthermore there are, acc. to the DH multiple accounts in Genesis also and not just in the desert.  So, I have to admit, I'm not sure I understand what JB is saying.

Now, some readers might find some of these challenges more compelling than others.
I find these all very un-compelling I'm afraid.

And some will maintain that the source critical approach is still more compelling, religious belief aside, over the harmonizing strategies surveyed earlier. I would suggest that when the competing explanations before us are each problematic, a viable option is not to choose between them but to frankly admit that we don’t have good options on the table in front of us.
Or we can broaden our understanding of Bible Criticism and take account of multiple authorship without forcing the theory into a rigid untenable pattern which makes it an easy strawman for Orthodox criticism of the DH. I dunno if JB has time for anonymous bloggers such as myself but if he does I would love to hear his response even if its privately by email. 

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Some TMS Fun

Ok so first someone wrote a book and someone else reviewed it: this:

This made some Rabbis angry.

Then people complained about it 

 I admit I have not read "Torah From Heaven: A Reconstruction of Faith". I saw it on the bookshelf took a look at it and said "This is Louis Jacobs/Heschel/et al" and put it back. [These approaches, are silly in my opinion, because once you've knocked out the direct link between God and Torah through Moses you're stuck with a very fluffy wishy washy sortav "well God inspires people and thats cool, and maybe he inspired people to write cool things", but that's a topic for another time]

If the review is accurate, it confirms my assumptions.

So some thoughts. Firstly the Va'ad HaRabonim is right that that's what Orthodoxy believes
however they are wrong because Orthodoxy is wrong about history etc.

DovBear IMHO is just nitpicking. Ibn Ezra gives a grand total of 12 verses (and maybe a scattered few here and there) to Joshua. But he was not a Bible critic and no traditional commentator was a Bible critic. Bible criticism was never accepted by Orthodoxy not in the past and not now. (And yeah some people, like James Kugel, call themselves Orthodox and accept Bible criticism but I think that's basically just Conservatism, a rose by any other name...)

Technically DovBear is right. Traditional commentators have said not every single last word was literally written by Moses. But once again, very few words, and very few commentators are included in this. The Va'ad HaRabonim did express the most extreme version of TMS i.e. its all from Moses down to every single letter, but they're just parroting the Rambam's principles of faith. And lots of people believe that those are Halakhically binding (that's what the Rambam wanted!)

Honestly, let's put things in context, the offensive book in question is not the Ibn Ezra and it's not saying "btw a few verses here and there maybe were written by Joshua." No. It's saying according to the review:

Rabbi Solomon argues further that historical scholarship makes it impossible to believe that Moses was the author of Genesis to Deuteronomy, or that our text of the Torah today is identical to the original one. 

There is a big difference between saying Joshua might have wrote 12 psukim according to one medieval commentator and saying "historical scholarship" rules out Mosaic authorship for entire books of the Torah. Therefore I'm not vaguely surprised that the Va'ad HaRabonim said this and I don't know why we should expect otherwise. They're just saying "this book is nice, but a reminder most Orthodox Jews don't believe this". Quoting Ibn Ezra is  missing the main point of the message which is an affirmation of the connection between the man Moses and the writing of the Torah.

I would rather focus not on why the Va'ad HaRabonim are "wrong" according to Orthodox Judaism (cuz I think they sum up pretty well what most Orthodox Jews think and have thought in the past) but rather focus on why they're wrong according to logic. And the answer is: "because historical scholarship [and common sense!] makes it impossible to believe that Moses was the author of Genesis to Deuteronomy".

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!)