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

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Breaking the Kuzari

Preliminary outline and cover for a book on the Kuzari Argument.

Chapter 1: Introduction
What the Kuzari argument is; the importance of the argument to many frum people as a "proof"; the purpose of this book.

Chapter 2: The Kuzari Argument
The various formulations of the Kuzari. The popular version in circulation. The original (from the sefer Kuzari), Ramban's, R' Chait, and R' Gottlieb. 

The Kuzari argument as a a series of syllogisms:

Premise 1: Either Matan Torah happened as recorded in the Torah, or someone made it up.
Premise 2: Millions of people will not accept that they or millions of their ancestors witnessed something and that there was a continuous tradition about that event unless they had heard about the event from their parents (or other elder family members). They would have rejected the claim out of hand.
Conclusion 1: Therefore it can't be that Matan Torah and the mesorah were  made up, because no one would have accepted it.
Premise 3:  If it were possible for mass revelation events to be faked or to develop organically, we would expect more religions to use a mass revelation as their origin stories.
Premise 4:  We don't see any other religions use a a story like matan Torah: a mass revelation to the entire nation that was passed on to the descendants of the original witnesses as their origin story.
Conclusion 2: Therefore it must be that mass revelation stories can't be faked or develop organically, and the mass revelation at Har Sinia must be a real event.
Premise 5: (From C1 and C2) We can be sure that matan Torah happened, just as we are sure that other historical events happened.
Premise 6:  If Hashem gave the Torah on Har Sinia, then Judaism is true and all Jews are obligated in the mitzvos.
Conclusion 3:  Therefore Judaism is true and all Jews are obligated in the mitzvos.

The argument as a syllogism with all sub-premises:
Premise 1: Either Matan Torah happened as recorded in the Torah, or someone made it up.
                Sub-premise A: If it was made up, someone tried to convince everyone that it is true, like a guy standing on a soapbox in the street.
Premise 2: Millions of people will not accept that they or millions of their ancestors witnessed something and that there was a continuous tradition about that event unless they had heard about the event from their parents (or other elder family members). They would have rejected the claim out of hand.
                Sub-premise A: There were millions of witnesses at  matan Torah
                Sub-premise B: The millions of witnesses at matan Torah passed down their experiences to 
their children through the generations, giving us millions of lines of faithful witness that matan Torah happened.
                Sub-premise C: Each link in the chain of the mesorah is equally reliable.
                Sub-premise D: There is an unbroken mesorah that proves  matan torah was a real event, and the mesorah is valid.
                Sub-premise E: The first generation would have had to believe they experienced matan Torah for them to tell the story to their children as history.  People are/were aware of history as such and valued it. Family and community elders wouldn't deliberately lie or distort the history they pass to their children in the service of what they regard as a greater religious good. And the first generation wasn't forced to accept the story and pass it on as truth to their kids
                Sub-premise F: people in the distant past were skeptical in the same way that people are today, (thought the same way about things as people do today) and so would have rejected the Sinia story if it wasn't true.
                Sub-premise G: Large numbers of people can't become convinced they (or their ancestors) witnessed something if it didn't really happen.
                Sub-premise H: The people saw God give the Torah,  not some sort of trick.
                Sub-premise I: It is reasonable to accept other people's testimony that they have witnessed a miracle.
Conclusion 1: Therefore it can't be that Matan Torah and the mesorah were  made up, because no one would have accepted it.

Premise 3:  If it were possible for mass revelation events to be faked or to develop organically, we would expect more religions to use a mass revelation as their origin stories.
                Sun-premise A: Religions (except Judaism, which is the truth) are invented by charlatans who are looking to use the best justification, or religions will naturally develop the best justification.
                Sub-premise B: Mass revelation is the best, or at least a very good, justification for a religion, so we would expect more religions to use it.
Premise 4:  We don't see any other religions use a a story like matan Torah: a mass revelation to the entire nation that was passed on to the descendants of the original witnesses as their origin story. ( R' Gottlieb's NET.)
                Sub-premise A: The uniqueness of the Sinai story is proof that it happened, because it shows that a story like matan Torah can't be made up or evolve through myth formation.
                Sub-premise B: There are no mass revelations in other religious traditions comparable to matan Torah.
Conclusion 2: Therefore it must be that mass revelation stories can't be faked or develop organically, and the mass revelation at Har Sinia must be a real event.
Premise 5: (From C1 and C2) We can be sure that matan Torah happened, just as we are sure that other historical events happened.
                Sub-premise A: The Kuzari Proof establishes the historicity of matan Torah in the same way and with the same or similar confidence as other events we consider historical (having actually happened).
Premise 6:  If Hashem gave the Torah on Har Sinia, then Judaism is true and all Jews are obligated in the mitzvos.
                Sub-premise A: There is a solid mesorah about what  our ancestors witnessed at matan Torah.
                Sub-premise B: If matan Torah was a real event, then the Torah we have today is the Word of God and Judaism as it is now is obligatory.
                Sub-premise C: People will not accept new doctrines as binding unless it is attested to through mesorah. Jews have accepted the burdensome commandments in the Torah and subsequent halacha unless matan Torah really happened.
Conclusion 3:  Therefore Judaism is true and all Jews are obligated in the mitzvos.

Chapter 3: Premise 1-A
Premise + sub-premise
Discussion and refutation
(Same for every "premise" chapter)
Chapter 4: Premise 2-A
Chapter 5: Premise 2-B
Chapter 6: Premise 2-C
Chapter 7: Premise 2-D
Chapter 8: Premise 2-E
Chapter 9: Premise 2-F
Chapter 10: Premise 2-G
Chapter 11: Premise 2-H
Chapter 12: Premise 2-I
Chapter 13: Premise 3-A
Chapter 14: Premise 3-B
Chapter 15: Premise 4-A
(Includes review of R' Gottlieb's NET.)
Chapter 16: Premise 4-B
Chapter 17: Premise 5-A
Chapter 18: Premise 6-A
Chapter 19: Premise 6-B
Chapter 20: Premise 6-C

Chapter 21 : Summery of Discussion
Premises, sub-premises, and conclusions, with short summaries of the refutations to each.
Implications of the failure of the Kuzari Argument.

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.