Friday, September 6, 2019

Reasonable Doubts: Breaking The Kuzari

My book on the Kuzari Argument is finally finished!

It's available on Amazon. Buy a copy for yourself, one for your friends, one for your family - one for everyone you know! Well, at least one for yourself.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Kol Kevudah BAS MELECH Pnimah

A comment someone made a few weeks ago has got me thinking.  He said that Bais Yaakovs are "Educating young women to dress… like real life princess which means modestly."

Bais Yaakov graduate commented on Facebook that in her school, they sang songs about being a princess, and shared this example:

"I am a princess
A Jewish princess
Because my father is a King
I'm a Bas Melech
A Jewish princess
From Hakadosh Baruch Hu"

A friend shared another:

Firstly, the frum world has an odd obsession with royalty.  Stories  and allegories are full of kings and queens, princes and princesses, noblemen and noblewomen. Sometimes these figures are the villains of the stories, but more often, they're stand-ins for God or models to be emulated. 

The nobility, and especially the royalty, obtained their positions by being the biggest bullies around. The early days of the aristocracy was a kleptocracy, not a meritocracy. The strongest, most fearsome warriors were the people  who rose to power. To be a king, to subjugate brutal warrior leaders, meant you had to be the most brutal of all. In the haggadah, the rasha,  the wicked son, is often represented as a  warrior.  Do we really want to look to the descendants brutal warriors for moral lessons?

Secondly,  it's just not true that princesses are or have ever been particularly modest, let alone  conformed to current standards  of tznius. The comparison to princesses almost certainly comes from the pasuk in tehillim, “kol kevudah bas melech pnimah,” "All the glory of the princess is inside." As I've written elsewhere this is really only half a pasuk, and it doesn't mean what Bais Yaakovs  use it to mean.  Nonetheless, this pasuk  is repeated ad nauseam in girls schools, and seems to lead to the idea that princesses are paragons of modesty.

 Are they, though?

Princess Diana was the quintessential 20th century Princess. She dressed elegantly and modestly  by the general standards of the western world, but she certainly wasn't tznius. No Bais Yaakov  would approve of that dress.

The woman on the right is her niece, Princess Eugenie of York. What she's wearing is perfectly acceptable by  general standards,  but is not  even close to being tznius.“Well,”  I can hear the Bais Yaakov  teachers say, “ Of course, today, the world is  degraded and immodest.  In the past, princesses really were exemplars a virtue and modesty.”

This is Mary Tudor, Queen Mary I of England, who ruled in the 16th century. Her sleeves meet current standards of tznius,  but her neckline, which exposes her collarbones, doesn't.

A century earlier across the channel in France, fashions were far more untznius. King Charles VII of France had a favorite named Agnès Sorel. Born to a minor noble family, Agnès  caught the king's eye while serving as a lady-in-waiting to his wife. She was soon given a place at court as the king's official mistress. It's alleged in several sources that she started a fashion in the French court for dresses cut below the bust. Jean Juvénal des Ursins, the archbishop of Reims, is on record complaining to the king about dresses with, "Front openings through which one sees the teats, nipples, and breasts of women."  This fashion is supposed to have lasted for nearly two hundred years, and  there is some evidence that Mary Tudor's sister Queen Elizabeth I commissioned a dress in this style.

A century after Mary and Elizabeth, noblewomen were still happily being untznius. We have paintings from the 1600s  such as the one on the left, which shows the Countess of Nassau Dietz with her three sons.

This nonchalance about nudity among the upper classes continued through the centuries. The painting on the right is from the 1700s,  and shows the princess of Lamballe. Incredibly, from the point of view of those concerned with tznius,  according to the caption on this image in Google,  her, “visible nipple indicate her birth and morality.” In other words, her nudity is an indication of her rank!

Even in the supposedly virtuously prudish 19th century, women of high  social rank  did not dress in accord with the standards of tznius. On the left is Amelie Augustes von Bayerne, Princess of Bavaria and Queen of Saxony. On the right is Princess Alexandra Amalie of Bavaria. Like Princess Diana, they're both dressed elegantly, but by tznius standards, they're dressed like whores.

An even less tznius 19th century trend was the “emancipated duel,” fought  with swords by high-ranking women  who removed their shirts before beginning the fight. The first of these duels was fought in 1892 by Princess Pauline Metternich and the Countess Kielmannsegg. The baroness who presided over the duel suggested that the women remove their tops to prevent cloth from being pushed into wounds, which would make them more likely to become infected and could turn a  duel to first blood into a duel to the death.

Princesses and noblewomen  are not and have never been paragons of virtue and modesty, let alone tznius.

Bais Yakkovs encourage their young students to be like princesses!? For shame!  The average woman  of today is far more modest than the princesses of the past ever were. Bais Yaakovs should be encouraging their students to dress appropriately for the contexts  in which they find themselves. Not promulgating ahistorical nonsense about virtuous princesses that's more appropriate for Romantic fantasies than for any sort of serious moral pedagogy.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Recounting Our Foundational Myths

Related image

         [1] The Haggadah presents itself in mythic terms.[2]  It's not a commemoration of the exodus or Sinai, but a reliving of those events. Everyone is required to see himself as if he had personally left Egypt. This is the mythic conception of an event: an event is not a discrete instance of something that happened in the past, but it's something that happened in the past and continues to happen in the present, reverberating down through the generations.
           The historicity of a myth - whether or not there really was in exodus, whether or not Jewish people really stood in front of Sinai and received the torah - is immaterial to the meaningfulness of the myth. The myth is about the beginning of the Jewish nation. It's about us differentiating ourselves from the dominant culture of the time, “ leaving Egypt,” and forming a unique identity as the Jewish people. It's about the beginning of the Jewish people as a distinct people, and the beginning of Jewish values. Values of defending the downtrodden, for we were once slaves in Egypt, and of giving scholarship and intellectual pursuits high status, for we are the people of the book.
          Both the exodus and the Sinai experience are important to this narrative. The exodus establishes the Jewish people as its own entity, but only in a negative sense. It's about what we're not - we're not Egyptians. We're not going to be subsumed the dominant culture. Sinai is about what we are. In a religious sense, it's about the acceptance of the religion of Judaism, of the torah and everything that goes with it. In a cultural sense, it's about the finding who we are: the people of the book. We are the people who value the scholar over the warrior, and who, at least ideally, value scholarship, understanding, and wisdom over wealth and other material good. (This is reflected in the Haggadah, in the depictions of the wise and the wicked sons many historical Haggados as a scholar and a soldier respectively.)
          Nietzsche picked up on this, but he took the wrong lesson from it. He called it the slave morality. A morality that stresses justice and equality before the law for all members of the group. A morality that celebrates intellectual over physical achievements. A morality that roots for the underdog. He advocated instead for a morality where the strong do what they can. He may be technically right that the strong can do as they will while others concern themselves with justice and wisdom. But a world where the strong do is they will is the world that most of us would not want to live in. The core values of Judaism contribute to a world that everyone can live in. A world where knowledge progresses and uplift us. A world where we all root for the underdog, where we help each other and everyone ends up better off. While we unfortunately often don't live up to these ideals, it is these ideals, rather than strongman ideals of Nietzsche's ubermensch or the materialistic ideals of a purely consumerist society that shape Jewish culture and have contributed to shaping the cultures we've interacted with.

          “The Seder rooted in, and geared to, the particular and specific experience of a particular and specific group. What informs it is not—as is frequently taught and still more often believed—the mere abstract principle of freedom, but the distinctive and concrete process by which a certain people achieved and evinced it. For this reason, it cannot be universalized without losing its essence; to validate it in terms of general principles is to distort its basic spirit and to squeeze out of it the very sap of life. The Seder service—and, indeed, the Passover festival as a whole—is as indissolubly and exclusively Jewish as independence day is American. The fact that both are instinct also with universal ideals no more obliterates their particular natures than does the universal prevalence of marriage obliterate the individual quality and significance of each particular union.”

          The story of the exodus is vague. Perhaps deliberately so. Myths, unlike history, are meant to speak through the ages. In an historical account, details are important. We'd want to know which pharaoh Moshe was dealing with. We'd want to know how many soldiers chased the Jewish people into the sea. We would want to know details about how the plagues affected Egyptians personally and the Egyptian empire economically and politically. We get none of these details, because it's not history. It's myth. To focus on such details would be to miss the point. There might be a kernel of truth in the exodus story, or it might just be that Egypt, as the superpower in the region at the time the story developed, made for a natural antagonist. Either way, pharaoh and the Egyptians represent a generic dominant culture. And the exodus and the Sinai experience represent the Jewish experience down through the ages: experiences of living within and sharing in a wider culture while maintaining our own, of differentiating ourselves from the dominant culture, and of clinging to love of learning and justice that runs through our own culture.
           It also reflects an ongoing experience of adopting elements of those cultures in which we found ourselves and modifying them for our own use. While I don't think this is the original meaning, we can read the passage about the Jewish people taking Egypt's wealth with them as a metaphor. We can read it not as that they took physical wealth, but that they took best elements of Egyptian culture and adopted and adapted them for Jewish use.
          The Seder itself as an example is such an adaptation. The form of the Seder is the Greco-roman symposium, adopted and adapted for Jewish use, put to work in perpetuating our people's founding mythology.

          “This continuous significance of the story is brought out with rare genius and consummate artistry in the actual structure of the Seder ceremony and of the Haggadah which constitutes its “book of words.” For neither is the product of a single age or environment—a mere heirloom or museum piece passed down intact and piously conserved. On the contrary, both are dynamic, not static creations—virtual kaleidoscopes of Jewish history—reflecting in their growth and development the various phases of Israel's career.”

          The structure of the Seder is that of the Greco-roman symposium, and,

          “When the door is opened “for Elijah,” we are plunged at once into the middle ages, for the real purpose of this act appears to have been to provide an effective rebuttal of the terrible blood libel which asserted that Jews employ the blood of Christian children in the preparation of the matzah. The door was flung open so that all might have a chance of beholding the complete innocence of the proceedings.
          ...The secular songs and ditties with which the service now concludes and which constitute its most recent—though most familiar—feature, take us straight into renaissance Europe. The famous ehad mi yodea (“who knows one?”), for example, has been traced by students of comparative literature to a popular and widespread “counting-out rhyme,” the earliest specimen of which appears in Germany in the 15th century. (in that earlier version, incidentally, the successive numbers refer to god, Moses, and Aaron, the three patriarchs, the four evangelists, and the five wounds of Jesus!) Similarly, the had gadya (“only one kid”) finds its earliest prototype in a 15th-century German folk song, der herr der schickt das jockli hinaus, though, here again, the wide popularity of the song is shown by the fact that early versions of it have turned up in most European countries.”

          Judaism has changed as the millennia have passed, but its core values developed in a consistent direction. These values are part of the religion of Judaism, but there is more to Judaism than religion alone.

          “The religion of a people was the regimen of its corporate existence, not merely a bundle of beliefs and of practices issuing from them. The reality of Jewish life lies not in Judaism but in the collective Jewish people. Judaism is merely an abstraction—the formulated quintessence of Jewish life—in precisely the same way that Hellenism is a mere abstraction of that which had reality and actuality in the Greek people.”

          This affiliation with Judaism, one's "Jewishness," can find different expression for different people. For some, it lies with a literal interpretation the exodus and the Sinai story, with belief in god and in a literalist interpretation of the torah and subsequent halacha as god's will. For others, it lies with core values derived from the Jewish tradition and their Jewish heritage. While wider culture, language, theology, and even basic beliefs about the world differ between groups of Jews and Jewish individuals, there are core values Judaism that create touchstone's that all Jews have in common. These include respect for learning, seeking justice, and concern for and respect for one’s fellow (however differently that may be defined by different groups). While these ideals are not fully realized by all Jewish groups or Jewish individuals, they remain ideals. In the act of accepting or rejecting those ideals, they inform all who are influenced by their Jewish heritage. The chacham and the rasha are both informed by their heritage, are both shaped by it, and are both very similar, for all their difference in attitude and outcome.

[1] This essay was inspired by and quotes from: Gaster, T. (April, 1951). What Does the Seder Celebrate? Modern Commentary on a Traditional Festival. Commentary. Retrieved from
[2] Here I mean "myth" in the academic rather than the colloquial sense. A myth is a foundational story of a culture meant to impart lessons and inform people about their place in the world. it takes place in the past, but its primary purpose is to inform people about why the present world is as it is and how they are to live in that world.

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.