Monday, March 19, 2018

Where the Torah Came From

I wrote this up as a response to a question someone asked on Facebook:

If you're asking where the Torah came from, the answer is that it was too far in the past for us to know for sure, but here's a thumbnail sketch of a plausible reconstruction based on the bits and pieces we do know.

The stories in the Torah started out as oral myths. Many of them have parallels in Mesopotamian and, to a lesser extent, Egyptian mythology. At some point, scribes wrote down the myths, probably as exercises or for academic interest, and stored the writings in the various Temples' libraries. When the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom, about half of the Israelites fled south into (the much smaller) Judea. The Israelite priests likely brought the libraries from the Temples at Dan and Bethel with them.

The Judean government now had to deal with the population doubling overnight. It had to find a way to knit together the native Judeans and the Israelite refugees into a single nation and to consolidate its control over the country. The solution was to "find" a book in the Temple library that drew on the old, well-known myths. Yoshiyahu had this book read to the people, and in it they found things they had not known. It provided the idea that all of the Judean and Israelite tribes were members of a single nation, with a single ancestor and a single God that was to be worshiped at a single place, the Temple in Yerushalayim.

The text and its myths were now an important part of Jewish identity and religion, but they were not yet authoritative.  Someone, perhaps Ezra, combined all of the old written myths from the libraries (and by now the Yoshiyahu's book was also old) to produce a textual canon of the sacred myths.

In the late 2nd Temple period, there was friction between the Tzedukim and the Perushim. The Tzedukim were mainly the Temple priests, who were literate and had access to the written canon in the Temple library. They regarded the canon as an authoritative source of practice. They were also connected to the new Chashmonai dynasty, and later, to Rome, and many of them were urban aristocrats. The Perushim were the old rural aristocracy and the common people, who regarded the mimetic transition of tradition to be authoritative, as it had always been.

Eventually there was a merging of the Tzeduki and Perushi positions. The canon became TSBS, and the mimetic tradition became TSBP. Part of the gemara's project was to weave these traditions together.

The written Torah remained in flux through the medieval era, with several versions with minor variations in circulation. It was finalized by the masorties shortly before the advent of the printing press, and printed versions that sofrim could refer to froze that version as the final one.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A book on the Kuzari?

An idea I'm toying with. Should I publish the discussion of the Kuzari Proof as its own book? It could make a well-over one hundred page book all on its own, depending on how much material is in the final version and things like page size and font/formatting.

I started working on writing my book in October, and I've only just finished the fourth chapter last week. The chapters are different sizes, and other demands on my time change, so it's not strictly predictive, but at this rate, it's going to take another two years to finish.

And it's going to be really long.

I could probably have a book on the Kuzari ready in a few months. And it would cut down the length of the main book. In the main book, instead of the Kuzari being its own (long) chapter, I could reference my Kuzari book, and summarize it in a few pages in the chapter on assorted proofs for Judaism.

There's also some financial incentive. Splitting off part of the main book into a separate work means more book sales (if anyone buys them), because now there would be two books instead of one. And if people buy the smaller, cheaper Kuzari book and like it, there's a better chance they'll buy the bigger, more expensive comprehensive book.


Title suggestions?

Thursday, February 22, 2018

You're an ignoramus! No, you're an ignoramus!

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of my book, "Apikorsus!"

                There's a story that often gets repeated when the subject of apikorsus comes up. It usually goes something like this:
                An apikores moved  to town, and the rabbi visited to welcome him. They talked for a while, and the rabbi asked if the newcomer would come with him to mincha.
                "Thank you for the invitation," the apikores said, "But I'm an atheist."
                "Really!" The rabbi said. "I've never met an atheist before. I'd love to get your perspective on the daf I'm learning."
                "You don't understand." The apikores said. "I'm an atheist. I don't learn gemara."
                "I see." The rabbi said. "But I assume you've learned through mishnayos. I'm in the middle of…"
                The apikores shook his head.
                "No?" The rabbi said. "Well, you must have a good understanding of Tanach, the foundation of Judaism,  with the meforshim. After all, you've concluded that they're all wrong! Perhaps we could discuss this week's parsha."
                The apikores shook his head again. "Rabbi, I'm an atheist. I don't do any of that religious stuff."
                "How could you have rejected Judaism?" The rabbi asked. "To reject Judaism, you first have to be a scholar. You haven't studied anything. You're not an atheist, you're an ignoramus."
                The story is told to make the point that one must be thoroughly acquainted with Judaism before he is qualified to reject it. The apikores in the story is not qualified to reject Judaism. Instead, he's just a fool, talking about things he knows nothing about.
                Some people expand on the theme, like one rebbe who told his class, "Ask the apikores. Did you ever read Aristotle? Plato? Moreh nevuchim? No? Then tell him you are not an atheist. You are an am haaretz (an ignoramus)."[1]
                There are several problems with the premise of the story. The first is that it often is not true.  Most people who go OTD have spent years in yeshiva or Beis Yaakov. They have studied gemara, mishnayos, Tanach, and more. Many have also read Aristotle, Plato, Moreh Nevuchim, and other philosophers, and are often better versed in theology than the average believer.
                The third problem is that the rabbi doesn't hold himself to the same standard he requires of the apikores. …
                The story can be told equally well the other way around:
                There was a frumme yid who moved to a college town. Word of his presence spread, and the dean of the college was intrigued. He arranged a meeting with the newcomer.
                "I've never met a true believer before." The dean said. "Is it true that you're a maamin, that you really believe that the Torah was written by an All-Powerful God Who created the world and gave the Torah to the Jewish people at Sinai?
                "Absolutely!" The yid replied.
                "Great!" The dean said. "I have some questions I was hoping you could answer. How do you account for the similarities between the Torah and Ancient Near Eastern mythology?"
                "Mythology?" The frum man said. "That's avodah zara! I don't study that."
                "I see." The dean said, "We'll avoid that subject. How do you account for the literary evidence that the Torah is a composite work?"
                "That's kefirah!" The yid answered. "Chas v'shalom that I should ever think the Torah might have been written by humans!"
                "What can we talk about, then?" The dean asked. "How myths develop? Archeological evidence for the origins of the Jewish people and for the beliefs of the early Israelites? Geological evidence for the age of the Earth? Cosmological evidence for the age of the universe? Biological evidence of evolution? The philosophical problems with proofs for the existence of God? The history of the development of Judaism, and the many different forms it's taken over the millennia? Influences on Judaism from other cultures?"
                "None of those! "The frum man answered. "Philosophy is foolishness, and the scientists and academics are either lying, or their findings are distorted by the mabul."
                The dean stood up. "Thank you for meeting with me, but I see we have nothing to discuss. To really be a true believer, you have to at least be educated enough to understand the problems with believing  in God and Orthodox Judaism. You're not a maamin, you're an ignoramus."

[1] Margolese, F. (2005). Off the Derech. Jerusalem, Israel: Devora Publishing Company. P. 178

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Hashkafa with a Heretic, Episode 4

This week I'm joined by Nechemia Kraus as we discuss the chapters three and four of the Chovos HaLevavos, and explore some of the syncretistic nature of Judaism.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Bas Melech Dress

Kol kevudah bas melech pnimia is quoted ad nauseum to girls and women, usually as part of "inspirational" speeches and projects encouraging them to cover themselves up, to not stand out, to not afflict men with their lascivious presence. They are told theat their golory is on the inside, and so it doesn't matter what they wear. They certainly shouldn't wear anything flashy that might attract attention. The second half of the pasuk, Mimishbi'tzos zahav livusha, is ignored.

Not anymore.

We bring you the Bas Melech dress. A beautiful dress in keeping with the second half of the pasuk. Now frum women can truly fulfill the words of pasuk. Expect to see them appearing at Beis Yaakov events, shuls, and simchos!

Monday, January 8, 2018

Hashkafa with a Heretic, Episode 3

This week I'm joined by Micheal Jacobson as we discuss the first three chapters of the Chovos HaLevavos, including how some people think they can be frummer than God and why the people who recommend seforim like the Chovos HaLevavos don't follow its advice.

I've created a dedicated channel for this series and have made the videos public. If you've subscribed (and even if you haven't), please subscribe to the new channel, and please share the series with anyone you think would be interested.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

A Friendly Frum Message To An OTDer.

The following is a line-by-line response to a message that was sent to someone who is OTD. The recipient asked for responses, and gave me permission to post it. The message is in italics, followed by my responses.

Dear [redacted],

As I said I would, I'm forwarding some links from xxxx. I hope that it's helpful. There may be other writing forums, as well. This is the one I've been involved with.

I also thank you for speaking with me so candidly. I'm glad that you felt comfortable enough to do so, and I encourage you to feel free to be in touch at your discretion.

I've been thinking a lot about our (unexpected) conversation. You have many questions, and I'm unclear about whether you really want any answers / solutions to your questions or not. Perhaps you just prefer to be left to the life you (seem to) have chosen for yourself.

So right at the start, we have the old, "You're questions are really answers." As though the only reason anyone would question the obvious truth of Yiddishkeit is because they're looking for excuses to throw off the ol hatorah and wallow in their taivos. And we have a delegitimatizing of the recipient's choices, with "seem to" in parentheses. As though they didn't really choose it, but were dragged there by forces (taivos - it's always taivos) beyond their control.

As you can imagine, it's disconcerting to watch someone you care about making choices that you'd feel are harmful. Let's say you noticed that someone dear to you had inherited a significant number of stocks, now s/he has to invest some effort to maintain this inheritance -paying brokers, flying to locations to do due diligence to assess the value of the stock, filing yearly income tax etc.; and now holds stocks that have not yet yielded (obvious) dividends. You are aware that the companies in which she holds stocks are developing their product, starting to make sales, but it hasn't yet translated into profits. How would you advise this friend? S/he is ready to throw the stocks out, after all, there's been no income commensurate to the hassle of keeping the stocks. Wouldn't you tell that friend to hold on, s/he's stands to earn a fortune. S/he's losing patience, s/he doesn't see the value in these old artifacts. But you know, once she gets rid of the stocks, if they bring in anywhere near what they potentially could, she'd kick herself big time at letting the opportunity slip through her fingers.

Here's an analogy trying to show that rejecting something because it doesn't have an immediate reward is foolish and shortsighted. The stocks are Yiddishkeit, the due diligence is the mitzvos, and the OTD person is the heir. I suppose the eventual payoff of the stocks is olam haboh.  The problem with this analogy, like all analogies from the known to the unknowable, is that we know stocks exist, and we have a general idea of how the market works. We know that stocks often do pay out, and that companies often take time to become established,  If somone really had information showing that the companies would be turning large profits in the future, he could share that information with the heir and convince them to hold on to the stocks. None of those things are true of Yiddishkeit. We can't know whether olam haboh exists, we don't know if keeping mitzvos ever pays off or, if they do, what kind of payoff we can expect or in what timeframe, and there is no information that can be provided that can reasonably prove that keeping mitzvos is a sound investment. The analogy fails on every point.

Also, the analogy reminds me of this:

[Redacted], you are smart, inquisitive and exploring – and you're also limited. (Aren't we all?) You're too young and inexperienced to come to hard and fast conclusions of difficult existential and spiritual matters. For everything you now know, there are exponential amounts that you don't yet know.

Sure, we're all limited. But recognizing that our limitations prevent us from coming to sure conclusions isn't an excuse to make stuff up. Why should suspending judgment, as the message writer suggests, equal being frum? It's at least as reasonable to suspend judgment and not be frum, pending further exploration of the issues. Frumkeit is not the default, "I don't know" is the default.

Why are you willing to believe so strongly in science? Do you explore and verify every study and experiment? Do you question the scientists who fill journals with their studies to clarify that they are not distorting the facts or skewing the results?

Of course not. Who does, or could? But it's reasonable to trust science, because, in principle, any of us could do the work. It's not mysterious or unknowable. And because science works! The message sender trusts science in every aspect of their daily lives, from when they check the weather in the morning, to the car they use to get to work, the bridges they drive over, the GPS they use to guide them, the medications they take, on and on and on. They literally trust science with their lives. It's only when scientific findings call tenets of their religion into question that they become skeptical, and ask questions like, "Do you verify it yourself? How do you know the scientists aren't lying?"

Are you accounting for the countless times they make an about-face saying the opposite today of what they said yesterday?

No. Just, really, no. Unless we're talking about modern rejection of ancient models of the world, an "about-face" is very rare. What does happen is that models are refined as more discoveries are made and more information becomes available. Putting down a new floor in a house, or even moving a wall, is not the same as turning the whole building around or knocking it down and building a new one.

Why do you relate to science with blind faith, since that's exactly what you're doing when you are quick to agree to everything they posit without being capable or trained to investigate their conclusions and verify their accuracy.

"Faith" is belief despite a lack of evidence. It's belief that ignores the probabilities. Believing in an unseen, unknowable God requires faith. Trusting experts and a system of learning about the world that has a proven track record is not faith. They're usually right, so they're probably right about "this" (whatever "this" happens to be), too.

And if you're willing to have blind-faith in the conclusions of mortal, often self-serving men and women – why should one spurn the individuals who exhibit faith in an Omnipotent G-d, and believe in upholding His statutes?

Like I just said, it's not blind faith to trust a proven system. But leaving that aside, this is again an analogy from the known to the unknowable. We know that scientists exist and that their findings usually reflect reality. We don't know that God exists, nor do we know that the beliefs of those who have faith in Him  reflect reality.

If you are suggesting that logic rules, then I fail to understand the logic in choosing science over the Creator who fashioned all the laws of nature which scientists claim to observe in the first place.

I get the impression that the message writer is using "logic" to mean, "makes sense." Logic is not just that which makes sense, logic is rules for reasoning that must be true, in the same way that one plus one must equal two. Be that as it may:

1.  if God is real, and He created the world and gave us the Torah, then if the Torah doesn't match reality, God lied to us. If the truth is in nature, then God lied to us when He said something different in the Torah. And if the truth is in the Torah, then God lied to us when He made nature in such a way that it fools us into believing untruths. Why would we trust such a Being?

2. We live in this world, it is the only reality we have access to, and what we can know about it affects our lives. Science has proven it's success at informing us about the world and improving our lives, while religion has not. Therefore it is reasonable to trust science over the word of God.

3. "Claim" to observe? Again, the unwarranted, selective skepticism of science only when it contradicts what they believe to be the message of the Creator.

Interestingly, there were a number of rishonim who held the opposite of the message writer. They held that we take the Torah as literally true unless it is contradicted by what we see in the world, in which case the Torah must be interpreted figuratively. The message writer seems to hold that we always take the Torah as literally true, and when it is contradicted by what we see in the world - well, who are you going to believe, me, or your lying eyes?

And, is this an intellectual or emotional argument?

Does it matter? Arguments stand or fall on their merits, the motivations of the person presenting the argument notwithstanding. And anyway, what's wrong with emotions? People are not frum for purely intellectual reasons. Far from it. The frum world discourages philosophical inquiry, and hashkafa is superficial, made up of bad arguments and inspirational fluff, not serious theology. If people can be frum for emotional reasons, why is it illegitimate for someone to stop being frum for emotional reasons?

And lets not forget how insulting this question is. It's asking, "You think you're being rational, but aren't you really stupidly being swept along by your emotions?" You weak-willed, broken, taiva-ridden fool, you.

[Redacted], your choices are not inconsequential- they really matter. They matter obviously to yourself, and also to your future spouse, children, bs"D, to your community, and to your nation.

Exactly, choices matter. Like choosing to remain frum. That choice severely limits the range of marriage partners, the education of children, and the potential communities one can belong to. Choosing to be frum is as legitimate a choice as any other, but it's not the default.

Is it important to you that your future generations remain Jewish?

What if it's not? What if it is, but there are other considerations that are also important, and a reasonable balance has to be found? What if it's of great importance, but of no importance whether they're frum?

You're going to have to make choices, not just now, but continually as your life unfolds. May you find the inner strength, wisdom, resources and messengers to help you reach conclusions which will bring you genuine and eternal satisfaction and serenity.

It's a nice sentiment, but eternal? Is this a veiled threat? "You had better stay frum, because only being frum guarantees your descendants will be Jewish (except that it doesn't, or there could be no OTD people who marry non-Jews), and if they aren't, you're going to look down from Heaven and be bothered by the dire consequences of your choices." There's nothing like guilt trips and threats about the unknowable afterlife to keep a person frum.

Your friend,