Monday, December 24, 2018

Cognitive Schema

What would make me believe again? I encounter this question often. It's an important question, but it's also a simplistic one.

It's important because it demands a substantive answer. If the answer is “nothing,” then I'm as unreasonable as the believer who says that nothing can shake them from their faith. To say that I arrived at my current position rationally is to say that I have weighed the evidence for and against my position, and have concluded that the evidence for it outweighs the evidence against it. If there is nothing that could convince me I'm wrong, no evidence this could get me to believe again, then I can't say that I have fairly weighed the evidence for and against my position, and I can't say that I rationally arrived at my current conclusions.

It's simplistic because the person asking the question, ”what would make you believe again?” Is usually looking for a single, simple answer. Yet the question is not nearly so simple as it seems. Believe again in what? In the supernatural? In God? In the literal truth of Judaism's tenet's? In frumkeit? Each of these would have different answers.

 it's simplistic also because it assumes that there could be some single experience or piece of evidence that could, on its own, convince me that from frumkeit is the truth. Someone recently asked in a facebook group, “if God appeared to you personally and told you that Orthodox Judaism is true, would you be frum?” I answered no. If I experienced God speaking to me, I would assume that I was hallucinating. I think that the person who asked the question took this to mean that there was nothing that could shake me from my disbelief . I think it seemed to him that I was irrationally certain that Orthodoxy is incorrect and that there is no God, and so I would disregard and explain away even what he regarded as overwhelming evidence. But that's not why I would think I was hallucinating. I wouldn't assume I was hallucinating because I'm obstinately refusing to accept overwhelming evidence. I would assume I was hallucinating because there's no slot for God my cognitive schema, the interconnected webs of information, inferences, rubrics, and heuristics that I use to make sense of the world.

Cognitive schema are a conceptual model from cognitive psychology that explains how we organize information about the world:

“schema…[are] mental structures that an individual uses to organize knowledge and guide cognitive processes and behavior. People use schemata (the plural of schema) to categorize objects and events based on common elements and characteristics and thus interpret and predict the world. New information is processed according to how it fits into these mental structures, or rules. In social science, particularly in cognitive science, it is understood that humans retrieve knowledge from various areas to draw conclusions about missing or non-evidential information, such as during decision making or political evaluation. Schemata represent the ways in which the characteristics of certain events or objects are recalled, as determined by one’s self-knowledge and cultural-political background. Examples of schemata include rubrics, perceived social roles, stereotypes, and worldviews.”[i]

A single experience, no matter how grand and overwhelming, is not enough to restructure the entirety of one’s cognitive schema. In order for me to accept that God exists, rather than that I was hallucinating, I first would need to have many small experiences that restructured my cognitive schema and open a slot for “God” to fit into.

In the same way, “ God” is woven through believers’ cognitive schema. It takes many small experiences, many bits of information learn over a long time to unweave God from the way one perceives and process the world, and even longer until God no longer fits into one’s schema at all.

This is why there is no single knock-down argument that can convince a believer that their faith is mistaken, or which can convince an atheist that God is real. It's why even world shattering, life-changing experiences rarely cause people to lose their faith, and why a personal experience of God speaking to me and telling me that Orthodoxy is the truth wouldn't convince me to be frum.

[i] Schema,
Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Miracle Mechanics

I recently came across an article that discusses how some of the "miracles" in ancient temples were done. Among the miracles it describes is "miraculous" lamps that never went out. There were several ways of achieving the effect. The simplest was for the priests to refill the lamps when no one was around. Alternatively, a small hidden pipe connected the lamp's reservoir to a back room, through which the priests could refill the lamp with no worshiper ever knowing.

I wonder if the Chanukah miracle was achieved this way. Or, perhaps more realistically, if such "miraculous" lamps were common in temples, and they became conflated with the lighting of the menorah at the re-dedication of the Beis HaMikdash or otherwise inspired the story of the oil burning for eight days.

Hero of Alexandria's "Pnuematics," mentioned in the article, makes fascinating reading. It's a catalogue of how various "miracles" were done. I can imagine the worshipers who witnessed these miracles knowing with certainty that their gods were real. They had seen the god's power for themselves!

I wonder what the priests thought. I would guess that they saw their mechanical miracles as ways to create a properly inspiring atmosphere for the worshipers at their temples. A kind of pious lie told for the greater good of the masses and the glory of their gods.

Monday, November 26, 2018

L'hatir Lahem Arayos

Everyone who has lived in the frum world, and especially those who have questioned its norms, are familiar with what I call the taivos canard: the assertion that people only have "questions" about frumkeit because they're hedonistic cretins looking for excuses to throw off the ol hatorah and wallow in their taivos (base desires). This is often said as though it's a truism, but occasionally someone will cite an authoritative source in support. Most often the source is a gemara in Sanhedrin (63b) that says, "lo uvdo avodas kochavim ela l'hatir lahem arayos,"  "[People] don't worship idols except to permit to themselves sexual licentiousness." They interpret this to mean that people want to do aveiros, but they can't because they know Hashem will punish them. So they come up with "questions" that allow them to convince themselves that Hashem won't punish them after all, and they can do whatever they want.

Like many such "sources," this one is taken wildly out of context. The interpretation takes the statement as a metaphor for not following halacha. "Idols" is interpreted as representing  rejecting frumkeit, and "arayos" is interpreted as representing  base desires. So, "the only reason people worship idols is to permit arayos to themselves," becomes, "the only reason people reject frumkeit is to permit themselves to indulge their base desires." The problem with this interpretation is that the statement in the gemara is very much not a metaphor.

The context of the statement is a discussion of the prohibitions surrounding idol worship. This segues into the question of why the Jewish people worshipped idols, and R' Yehuda provides an explanation:

Rav Yehuda says that Rav says: The Jewish people knew that idol worship is of no substance; they did not actually believe in it. And they worshipped idols only in order to permit themselves to engage in forbidden sexual relations in public, since most rituals of idol worship would include public displays of forbidden sexual intercourse.[1]

This isn't a metaphor about rejecting Judaism to assuage a guilty conscience by someone who can't control himself. It's a literal explanation of why someone would worship an idol he didn't believe had any power: because he wanted access to the temple prostitutes. The "forbidden sexual relations in public" R' Yehuda cites as the reason for the Jewish people's idolatry is almost certainly a reference to the sacred prostitutes that were common at pagan temples in the Ancient Near East. In particular, temple prostitutes were strongly associated with Asherah worship, which was common among the ancient Israelites.[2]

Not only isn't it a metaphor, but the ensuing discussion in the gemara disputes the reason R' Yehuda gives. R' Yehuda states that people only worshiped idols to permit themselves to have sex in public with the temple prostitutes, and the gemara proceeds to argue against him, and to bring proofs that the Jewish people worshipped idols because they really believed in them! The quote, like so many, is yanked out of context and used to make a polemical point, even though in context it means nothing like what it's used to mean.

Of course, pointing out that a proof text used for an argument doesn't really support the argument doesn't mean that the argument is wrong. That this gemara doesn't mean what people have come to use it for doesn't mean the taivos canard isn't true. It's really, really not, but this isn't the place to explore all the reasons why it's not. It's enough here to note that in an authority-based system like halacha and frumkeit, arguments tend to rely on authoritative sources to give them validity. The corollary is that if the source used to bolster an argument doesn't really mean what it's being used to mean, that significantly weakens the argument. So even if the taivos canard wasn't wrong for other reasons, and even if we accept the system of knowledge of those who use it, the taivos canard is very weak even by the rules of that system.

[1] Translation from
[2] The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. Qedesha: Temple Prostitute. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from

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."
"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.