Tuesday, November 13, 2018

"Sex Is Evil and I Am Horny"

I've been meaning to write this post for years, but somehow never got around to it.

About ten years ago, I discovered TV Tropes, and was a regular reader for a couple of years. Besides being hypnotically entertaining, it was educational. I learned how stories are put together, and began to see the discrete elements in the stories I consumed. This included the stories in Tanach.

I also occasionally came across tropes that perfectly described phenomena in the frum world. I cited one in a post back in 2009, Wild Mass Guessing. The title of this post is another.

This is from the Sex Is Evil and I Am Horny trope's page:

A character with this mindset is likely to think that at least some men are incapable of controlling their sexual urges, so women should expect them to commit sexual harassment or worse and be Crazy-Prepared in various ways, such as second-guess what these men might find attractive and then try her best to not look attractive, lest these men get their urges. Of course, since each individual man has his individual preferences (and also since the whole "oh no, I got aroused" thing is just an excuse anyway), even wearing Crocs would not be safe in this regard. Yet some particularly unsympathetic or tragic characters may take this attitude one step further, demanding the Double Think that we should all consider men to be some kind of monsters while still considering them to be the superior gender—morally and otherwise. This is done by blaming women for (by their appearance or mere existence) "tempting" men and thus making any sex-crimes against them their own fault. 

This is a perfect description of the attitudes towards sex I learned as a teenager immersed in the yeshivish world.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Nudes in Shul


Over Yom Tov I read Aphrodite and the Rabbis: How the Jews Adapted Roman Culture to Create Judaism as We Know It. It's a fascinating book. The author describes how the cultural norms of the Roman Empire shaped early Rabbinic Judaism.

One of many interesting things he mentions is a synagogue discovered at Dura. This was a town on the border of the Roman and Persian empires. When the Persians attacked the Roman Empire, Dura was in the path of their advance. The citizens of the town piled earth against the inside of the town walls to reinforce it in preparation for the coming attack. The buildings that abutted the walls, including this synagogue, were filled with dirt. The Persians rolled over the town on their way into the Roman Empire, and the town was left abandoned.

It was rediscovered by archaeologists in the 1920s. The dirt piled in the buildings along the walls millennia before had preserved them in near-perfect condition. In the synagogue, the archaeologists  discovered a mural on the walls that depicted scenes from Tanach. One interesting detail is that the Jewish Biblical figures were dressed in then-contemporary Roman fashions, while Achashverosh was painted in then-contemporary Persian fashions.

Related image

Another, particularly noteworthy detail in light of current frum mores is the panel depicting Basya pulling Moshe from the Nile. The princess is knee-deep in the water, and, quite sensibly for someone who's bathing, is nude.

Image result for dura synagogue batya

It's unclear whether the congregation who worshipped at the Dura synagogue were Rabbinic Jews. Nonetheless, they were heirs of the Jewish tradition no less than any other community of Jews of their time. And they had a painting of a nude woman on the wall of their shul. Granted, a nude with no detail, but still a nude. What would they have thought of the communities today - communities that claim to be the exclusive true heirs of the Way Judaism Has Always Been - who won't display in their publications or public spaces images of women dressed to even the most stringent standards of tznius?

Thursday, August 30, 2018

God's Machiavellian Machinations


A classic question is how Hashem could have punished the Egyptians for enslaving the Bnei Yisroel when He Himself had orchestrated their slavery in Egypt. How could God have punished Pharaoh for not releasing the Israelites when He intervened and hardened Pharaoh's heart?

There are various answers given, but I think I've discovered the real reason.

Cesare Borgia, the fifteenth-century Duke of Valentinois, is thought to be the main inspiration for Machiavelli's "The Prince." Borgia did whatever he thought would best lead to the realization of his goals, regardless of the morality of his actions. In one instance, he ordered one of his generals to snuff out a rebellion. The harsh and violent methods the general used under Borgia's orders made the general widely hated. After the rebellion was put down, Borgia had the general executed for his crimes. This made the people love him and his underlings fear him, exactly the result that served Borgia best.

Hashem is omniscient. Unlike us puny humans, He doesn't have to wait for historical developments or talented writers to produce works like "The Prince" to know the best methods for manipulating the public.  Long before Cesare Borgia and Machiavelli, Hashem knew that the best way to get the people to love and fear you is to have someone else do your dirty work, and then punish them for it.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Genre Mistakes


One reaction I often get to questions based on the Problem of Evil and similar inconsistencies about God is, "Who do you think you are to think that you could understand God?! Humans are less than ants compared to Him! It's arrogant and presumptuous of you to think you could understand why God does what He does, and arrogant and presumptuous to reject God because you don't understand Him!"

This is an instance of mistaking about-the-system questions for within-the-system questions.

Within-the-system, "why would God want sacrifices," or, "why would God write a book that looks like it was written by multiple authors," or, "why does God allow evil in the world" look like arrogant, presumptuous questions. Once you assume there's a Being Who's as much greater than humans as we're greater than ants, you're right. Who are we to think we could understand God!

But these aren't within-the-system questions. They're about-the-system questions. Starting from the position that we don't know if there is or isn't a God, these questions make good sense. You want me to accept that God exists? What are the attributes of this God?

You say God wants sacrifices. Sure, it's possible that an omnipotent and omniscient non-anthropomorphic Being wants sacrifices for inscrutable reasons, but the more straightforward explanation is that humans, who want things, invented this God and attributed to Him their own types of desires.

You say that God wrote the Torah, Sure, it's possible that an omnipotent omniscient Being could write a book that looks as if it were written by multiple authors, but the more straightforward explanation is that it's exactly what it looks like.

You say that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. Sure, there could be some explanation we can't understand for why there's evil in the world, but straightforward reasoning shows that a tri-omni God and the existence of evil in the world are mutually exclusive.



If one assumes the questions are being asked from within-the-system, which assumes God exists and has certain attributes, then the argument is invalid. From within-the-system, it looks like the questions are trying to dismantle belief in God by appealing to the supposed absurdity of this or that attribute.  "X doesn't make sense to me, therefore it's not true." "It doesn't make sense that God would want sacrifices, therefore God isn't real." That's an argument from incredulity, a logical fallacy, and is bad reasoning.

But that's not how the questions are being asked. It's not,
 "X doesn't make sense to me, therefore it's not true."
It's,
"W'ere trying to determine if there is X. Y is an attribute claimed for X. Y may be caused by A, which is consistent with X being false, or B, which is consistent with X being true. A seems more likely than B."

We don't know if God exists. An attribute claimed for God is that He wants sacrifices It may be that A. God has this attribute because people, who have desires, invented God and projected their own experience onto Him, or B. That even though it seems odd that an omnipotent omniscient Being wants sacrifices, God wants them for inscrutable reasons. A is the more straightforward answer, so claiming that God wants sacrifices goes on the "humans probably invented God" side of the scale.


And so on.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Secular Hilchos Shabbos


Shabbos is one of the components of Jewish culture that I think has great intrinsic value. This is especially true of Orthodox Shabbosim, which force one to pause, to disconnect from the headlong race of day-to-day life with its never-ending to-do list. It's no accident that kiruv workers often use Shabbos meals to introduce potential baalei teshuva to frumkeit. Shabbos really is a wonderful institution.

What is it about Shabbos that makes it valuable, though? It's not the endless list of "shalt nots" that many people, especially kids, experience as suffocating restrictions. Nor is it the religious goals of remembrance of Creation and connection to God, though that plays a role for many religious people. What makes it valuable to me is the way it punctuates the week and gives it structure. It's one day a week to step back from my to-do list and spend time with family and friends. To put on nice clothing, to eat better-than-usual meals that have been prepared in advance off of nicer-than-usual dishes, to not worry about cleaning up immediately, to read, to relax, to spend hours socializing and playing with my kids.

For Shabbos to work, it needs to be consistent and somewhat binding, if only in the sense that one makes a commitment to stick to the rules one has decided on. Otherwise it becomes too easy to do just this one important thing, or just run that errand - it won't take too long - and the value of the day evaporates as our to-do lists assert themselves. Given that what makes the day valuable is the break from routine, the gravitas of and enjoyment from fancy things, and the time  spent with family and friends, what would be the rules for a Shabbos built with those goals in mind instead of the religious strictures that have evolved over the millennia?

A few suggestions:
  • Thou shalt observe the Sabbath from 6:.30 PM Friday night to 6:30 PM Saturday night.
  • Thou shalt honor and lend gravitas to the Sabbath with finer-than-usual clothing, food, and tableware.
  • Thou shalt not consume electronic media on the Sabbath.
  • Thou shalt not engage in business on the Sabbath.
  • Thou shalt not run errands on the Sabbath.
  • Thou shalt not prepare meals on the Sabbath; only add necessary last-minute touches and heat dishes as necessary.
  • Thou shalt feast on the Sabbath; Friday dinner and Satruday lunch thou shalt make special.
  • Thou shalt begin Sabbath meals with a ritual of some sort. Kiddush is traditional, but any similar sort of ritual will serve. (Rituals surrounding meals have been shown to increase enjoyment of those meals.)
  • Thou shalt not travel on the Sabbath for more than an hour in any direction from the spot  where you are when the Sabbath begins.
  • Thou shalt not travel in a vehicle on the Sabbath except for the purpose of socialization.
  • Thou shalt not be productive on the Sabbath.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Seven Books


A few days ago, a friend tagged me in Facebook game: post the covers of seven books that affected your life. I don't usually do this kind of thing, but this one is interesting. I read a lot, and books have had a large impact on my life. My regular Facebook page is not really the right forum for this sort of introspection, so I thought I'd do it here. The game asks for seven book covers over seven days, but doing all of them at once makes for a better blog post.

The books in the list skew toward more recent reads. While I read hundreds, maybe thousands of books as a kid, it's hard to pick out ones that were particularly significant. That, and the more recent ones fit more with my self-image as an intellectual.

In the order that I read them:

The Martian Chronicles

I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction as a young adult. I think I read The Martian Chronicles when I was in fifth grade. It's a collection of short stories about Mars. There's one story about a Martian woman who has a dream that astronauts from Earth came to visit her. When she tells her husband about it the next morning, he tells her that's impossible. Their scientists have shown that there's too much oxygen on Earth for there to be life.

I had been taught that the Earth is the perfect distance from the Sun for life, with the perfect conditions, and this shows the wonder of Hashem. He created the Earth in the perfect place for us! This story suddenly shifted my perspective. Earth wasn't special, created as a unique haven for life in the one perfectly balanced position where life could survive. From the point of view of creatures adapted to a different environment, life on Earth  was "impossible."

Shifts in perspective and seeing things from another point of view is something that good novels allow us to do. Growing up in a community with a particular and narrow worldview, books were my window into other ways to live and other perspectives. None of it was "real" - none of it was something I thought I could do myself, any more than I could go live with the Martians. But broadened my thinking, and showed me that there were other ways to look at things beyond what I was taught.


Sand and Stars

When I was in tenth grade, I was in a yeshiva where reading "non-Jewish" books was against the rules.  I was good for the first year I was there. I read through my family's collection. Then I borrowed books from my aunt. When those ran out, I borrowed books from the local frum library. Desperate for something to read, I read the two-volume Sand and Stars Jewish history books. I was hooked. My father had R' Berel Wein's enormous history books. I hadn't read them because I hadn't thought of them as casual reading material, but now I read through both of them, and third when it came out. I still read novels for a couple of years, but now I was also reading history. After high school I read history almost exclusively for about ten years.

It's ironic that the schools policy, meant to protect its tender talmidim from the influences of "inappropriate" books, had the unintended consequence of leading me to non-fiction. First history, then philosophy, theology, and all the rest. Subjects far more damaging to a yeshivish worldview than the vanilla sex scenes in novels that the policy was meant to protect us from could ever be.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

It's not so much that The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy had an impact, as it's one of the most fun and memorable book series I've ever read. Like all good science fiction, it has those perspective-changing moments. More than most. The man who lives outside the asylum - inside his house. Or the whale that pops into existence a mile in the air and wonders about his purpose in life before splattering on the ground.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

Does this count as a book? I'll count it. I first read the The Epic of Gilgamesh in a college literature class. It was my introduction to the mythology that Tanach borrows from. At the time, like my classmates, I saw it as another source, albeit a corrupted one, for Noach's story. In time, I came to see that there was no reason to favor Noach's story as the "real" version over Utnapishtim's or Atrahasis's.

Philosophy for Dummies

I read Philosophy for Dummies sometime in early 2009. My sister-in-law was taking a philosophy class in Stern, and had asked me for help editing a couple of her essays. What she was learning sounded interesting, so I got Philosophy for Dummies from the library. That was the beginning of my exploration of philosophy and philosophical theology.

How to Read the Bible

As a kid, I barely knew that there was such a thing as academic Biblical scholarship. When it was mentioned at all, it was disparagingly. If only the "scholars" (referred to very much in quotes) could read Hebrew, or learn the midrashim, they would understand the Torah like we did, and would abandon their ridiculous "theories" about the Torah being written by people.

I saw frequent positive references to Biblical scholarship in the blogospere, but I barely understood what they were talking about. It went over my head, and I mostly ignored it. But it was interesting enough that when I found How to Read the Bible in the library, I took it out and read it. It was not at all what my rabbeim had imagined it to be. Of course academic Biblical scholars could read Hebrew. Of course they read midrashim. As I would find out, some of the leaders of the field, like the author of How to Read the Bible, were in fact Orthodox Jews!

It was fascinating. Suddenly, Tanach made sense. All of the problems that the midrashim solved with convoluted explanations that often ignored what the text actually said fell away when approached with the straightforward, real-world assumptions of Biblical scholarship.

The Better Angels of Our Nature

It's a truism in the frum world that the world we live in is uniquely bad, a corrupted version of the past. Even the goyim used to be more moral, the frum narrative goes, but now we live in debauched times that necessitate a separation between ourselves and the corrupt outside world. The Better Angels of Our Nature shows, with hard data, that in fact the world has never been more moral than it is right now. Including even sexual morality, which is what people really mean when they talk about how terrible the world is today.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

A Plausible Alternative to the Kuzari


I'm working through R' Dovid Gottlieb's formulation of the Kuzari Argument, as laid out in his book LivingUp To The Truth and various articles. In his article TheKuzari Principle - Introduction, he says that no critic of his principle has ever provided the details of how the Sinai story could have developed if it hadn't actually happened. Instead, they wave vaguely towards myth formation. He even purports to do the critics' work for them, laying out how it might have happened, and then showing why it couldn't have happened that way. What he really does is set up a strawman where at some point someone tried to "sell" the story to the people, and counters this strawman with the argument that neither the first generation nor any of their descendants would have accepted a story of mass revelation if they hadn't experienced it themselves or heard about it from their parents and grandparents.

I think I have a plausible scenario for how the myth of matan Torah might have developed, with at least as much details as R' Gottleib provides in his strawman version. Best of all, it was inadvertently suggested by R' Gottleib himself.

In Living Up To The Truth, he sketches out his version of the Kuzari argument like this:
"Let's consider a possible event, that is to say an event about which we don’t know whether or not it occurred. Let’s suppose it is an event which if it had occurred, it would have left behind enormous, easily available evidence of its occurrence. Well, if we don't have the evidence then we will not believe it occurred.
That's what the principle says. Let's try to put it in simpler terms. Someone is trying to convince me that a war, or an earthquake, or something like that happened. If he is right that it (the war, earthquake, etc.) really happened, I should know about it already. I shouldn't need him to tell me. Then the principle tells me that I will not be convinced by him. The problem of the missing knowledge will prevent me from believing him.
Of course, when I say that "people will not believe," I don't mean that no one will believe. After all, there are people who believe in flying saucers, or that they are Napoleon, or that the Miami Dolphins will win the Super Bowl! What I mean is that you will not be able to get the vast majority of a nation to accept such a view about their own ancestors when no one in fact remembers it."

So a few people might believe, but you can't get a whole nation to believe something for which there isn't sufficient evidence.

A few pages later, he has a discussion about people who disbelieve in the Holocaust despite the overwhelming evidence, and says,

"…the Kuzari principle predicts that you cannot get people to believe that the Holocaust did not occur. But the prediction is in fact correct! More than ninety per cent of contemporary Americans believe in the Holocaust. The Kuzari principle does not say that no one will accept such a belief. For any kind of craziness you can find some believers! "

I think a plausible origin for the Sinai story lies with R' Gottlieb's crazy fringe, the ten percent or so who will accept something despite the lack of evidence that should be there.  This origin works even in the scenario where story is "sold" to the people, as R' Gottlieb and other kiruv rabbis like to picture it, instead of organically developing from fables or exaggerations of real events in the way myths typically do.

In my scenario, the Sinai story  starts with a charismatic religious leader who sells the story to the small group of "crazies" who will believe it despite the lack of evidence. Let's say, five percent of the population. They're eccentrics who no one takes seriously. But most of their children are not. The children grow up and become typical members of society, except that many of them retain the belief in the Sinai story they were taught as children. This isn't a belief that effects their lives in any significant way, so there's no reason to drop it. Everyone keeps the Jewish traditions, and they do to, with the insignificant difference that they believe the traditions were given to all the people all at once by God instead of revealed through prophets and leaders.

A few dozen generations later, everyone has forgotten that the Sinai story was sold to a small group of eccentrics. It's now a normal, albeit minority belief. The belief spreads through society as a result of friendships, marriages, etc., in the way that cultural phenomena typically do. In this way, the belief spreads to a few individuals at a time, who don't ask about the evidence for it. They are adopting it because it is the belief of the family they are marrying into, or because it is the belief of a significant number of their friends, and aren't concerned about intellectually justifying the belief. It's enough for them that this is what their family or friends believe. There is now a sizable minority that believes in the Sinai story.

Over time, the group or people within the group who hold the belief rise to prominence in society, and others adopt the belief in imitation of the social elites. Or the gradual spread of the story, one individual at a time, reaches a tipping point where there are enough people that believe it that it leads to most of the nation accepting it. They don't ask why there's no evidence for the Sinai story. They don't ask how everyone could have forgotten something so significant. Why would they, when clearly it wasn't forgotten. Even though a majority seem to have forgotten, there is a tradition, stretching back many generations, among a large minority of the nation that the ancestors of all the people received the Torah from God at Har Sinai. The expected evidence is right there for anyone to see!

A few millennia later, it's been forgotten that it was ever a minority belief, and R' Gottlieb insists that you can't ever convince people that a whole nation had an experience  they didn't have.

R' Gottlieb is clever, and he leaves himself an out just in case a skeptic does come up with a plausible alternative to the Kuzari. He says that it's not enough to propose a plausible scenario. After all, there's lots of plausible things that didn't actually happen. To defeat the Kuzari, he says, the skeptic has to show that it happened. Otherwise, the Kuzari remains more likely.

Let's leave aside the near-impossibility of knowing exactly what happened in the distant past. I think R' Gottlieb defeats himself on two counts.

The first is the double standard he has regarding plausible scenarios. He demands that the critic show that the alternative to the Kuzari is what happened, or at the very least, that the critic show that the alternative scenario happened in the development of another culture's myth. But R' Gottlieb doesn't himself provide the kind of historical evidence he asks of the skeptic. Instead, he relies on the logic of his Kuzari argument and his contention that it couldn't have been accepted if it weren't true. And he insists that there is no other culture that has a comparable myth. So he's neither shown that the Kuzari is correct in regard to matan Torah or to any other culture's myths. It remains only a plausible scenario, and as he says, there are lots of plausible things that didn't actually happen.

The second is his appeals to our typical ways of knowing things. Throughout his formulation of his argument, he says things like,
" To violate the Kuzari principle we have to believe something for which all the expected evidence is missing. If it were true that there ought to be evidence, and there isn’t any evidence, we would never accept a belief. That is not part of our normal cognitive life."
Yet our "normal cognitive life," our regular way of knowing things in our everyday experiences, never looks to supernatural explanations. Even the miracles that people claim to experience are almost never supernatural experiences, but just really unlikely natural things, like the spontaneous remission of a terminal illness. If we are to appeal to our typical way of knowing, then any natural scenario, no matter how wild, is always going to be more plausible than a supernatural one. Any explanation I can think of, as long as it doesn't violate the laws of nature, is going to be more plausible than God having spoken to people. Even the strawman scenario of some charlatan selling the story to the whole nation. A whole nation accepting a story without any evidence that all of their ancestors heard God speak may be wildly unlikely, but it violates our  "normal cognitive life" less than does a miraculous supernatural event where people audibly heard God speak to them.

R' Gottleib's formulation is far and away the most sophisticated version of the Kuzari Argument. And yet, it seems that it's self-refuting.



Kuzari book outline: Breaking the Kuzari