Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Girl in the Blue Uniform

Reading this post on DovBear brought me back to high school and the rumors that circulated about this guy or that yeshiva. It also made me remember the Yeshiva’s attitude toward sex and the opposite sex. Their opinion of contact between guys and girls can be summed up in one word: EVIL. [Since then Frum Satire has also had a post related to the subject.]

Girls were presented (intentionally or not) as evil succubae that would lead a yeshiva bochur away from all that is good and holy. They weren’t human – they were GIRLS.

A few anecdotes to illustrate what I mean.

The yeshiva I was in had a lot of guys (like myself) from other cities who stayed in the dorms. The yeshiva would usually arrange for us to eat one of the Shabbos meals with families from the local community. If the family had any daughters over the age of eight or so, these girls had to leave the house in order for the family to invite us. Not so bad, right? The girls went to friends’ houses, and we got a good meal. Why, though, couldn’t the families’ daughters and the bochurim sit at the Shabbos table together? Because we might talk to each other. Which brings me to my second anecdote.

One Shabbos afternoon in the spring one of the guys in yeshiva decided to go for a walk and ended up at a local park. The park was full of frum families enjoying a pleasant Shabbos afternoon. While there he struck up a conversation with a girl about his own age. After chatting for a while they each went their own way. Someone in the park recognized him and told the Rosh Yeshiva that he had been talking to a girl. The result was a week’s suspension.

Now we come to my personal high-school experience with a girl. Ready?

I used to bike the six or seven blocks from the dorm to the yeshiva every morning. Over the back wheel I had a rack with a spring-loaded clip that I would use to hold stuff I was transporting: books, snacks, etc. On my way to yeshiva I would often pass groups of girls on the way to one of the local bais yaakovs. One day as I was passing a group of girls the clip gave way and spilled my books into the street. One of the girls helped me pick up my books and handed me the ones she had collected. I said, “Thank you.”

That’s it. My entire high-school experience with girls. Yet it was such an anomaly that even now, eleven years later, I can remember the blue uniform skirt she was wearing and the shy smile on her face as she handed me the books.

Why is there this insistence on the strict separation of the sexes? Why is the worst thing a teenager (and in some circles, even an adult) do is talk to a member of the opposite sex?

I think answer is in the yeshivah world’s opinion that people can’t control themselves and in the stereotypes promoted by yeshivas and bais yaakovs.

The idea that humans have no natural self-control is illustrated by the often-repeated argument that we must be slaves either to our desires or to God. While this argument contains a number of logical fallacies, I’m not going to address those now. The point I’m making here is that the underlying assumption of this argument is that without God’s rules to restrain us we would follow every whim with no possibility of self-restraint.

If that is true, then men and women should be separated, since they won’t be able to control themselves. Yet we see that, aside from a small number of criminals, men and women do not assault each other when they are allowed to interact.

The yeshiva world largely ignores this obvious fact, and instead points to teen pregnancy rates in society at large as evidence that guys and girls shouldn’t socialize. Apparently interaction inevitably leads to sex. And why is that? Because guys, especially teenage guys, can’t control themselves around girls. This has a grain of truth – teenagers (guys and girls) do tend to be obsessed with sex. And yes, teenagers, due to a lack of experience and a tendency not to think of consequences, do a lot of stupid things. Letting guys and girls socialize does carry some risk that they may make unwise decisions. But parents and schools should teach them how to act responsibly and how to make the right decisions. Instead they are denied the opportunity to learn how to interact appropriately. This leads to a mythologization of the opposite sex.

Girls, according to yeshivas, come in two varieties. The first is the aishes chayil – our mothers and sisters, the wives of tzaddikim, the kind of girl every guy should want to marry. This version of women came up infrequently. Far more common was the girl as the temptress who would lead the good yeshiva bochur astray. Of course, the poor yeshiva bochur, being a guy and therefore unable to control himself around women, had no defense against these girls. Not that these girls meant to be evil. It was simply the nature of things that girls tempt guys, guys have no defense, and the results were always catastrophic.

As I understand the girl’s point of view, they are taught that guys have no self control, and that dressing untzniusly will cause him to sin. In other words, they are being taught that men see them as sex objects, and that they must make every effort to minimize their unholy influence.

So we have guys characterized as animals who can’t control their desires and girls as sex objects who stir those desires. These stereotypes represent the worst extremes in relations between the sexes and present those extremes as normative.

How insulting.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Cosmic Coincidence

There was an article titled “Five Cosmic Cups” in this weeks 5 Towns Jewish Times which attempted to defend the idea (attributed here to the Rebbe of Ostrovtza) that Birchas Hachamah had only occurred on Erev Pesach twice before, the year of yetzias Mitzrayim and the year of the Purim story. Like many articles in this sometimes-entertaining paper, this one bugged me.

The article begins by saying it is obvious that birchas hachmah has come out on erev Pesach many times – even in the “year in which the Rebbe’s remarks were made… so surely his remarks cannot be taken at face value.” It states that “the Rebbe must have been either misquoted or misunderstood.” Certainly either is a possibility, but the author ignores a third possibility – the Rebbe may have simply been mistaken.

The author goes on to speculate that “what the Rebbe meant to teach us was that the experience of birchas hachamah on erev Pesach was an event of massive cosmic significance, signaling a dramatic leap forward in the history of mankind akin to the Exodus and the events of Purim.” A nice thought, but then why didn’t the Rebbe just say so?

He then lists the dates when birchas hachamah and Erev Pesach coincided in order to show that they match up with significant historical events. He goes on to state that birchas hachamah on erev Pesach occurred eleven years before yetzias Mitzrayim, and again eighteen years after the settling of Eretz Yisroel. At first I didn’t understand what his point was. If it had happened the same year as these events, that would be interesting, but a margin of error of nearly two decades? Then I realized that he meant it occurred within those twenty-eight-year birchas hachamah cycles. However because the first birchas hachamah mentioned occurred eleven years before the event and the other eighteen years after, that means he is using a fifty-six year window to find significant events to match to occurrences of birchas hachamah on Erev Pesach. I think that one could find some significant event in any fifty-six year period.

Let’s try a random year, say, 1420. That gives us from 1392 through the 1448 to find a significant historical event. A few minutes searching on Google shows that Johannes Gutenberg was born around 1400 and printed the famous Gutenberg Bible around 1450. This is slightly beyond our cutoff date, but for the bible to have been printed then he surely must have invented his moveable-type press before then, which would be within the timeframe. The invention of moveable type is one of the most significant events in history, and led to an unprecedented availability of knowledge.

That wasn’t hard. And I really did pick 1420 randomly. Finding important events around birchas hachamah with this much of a margin isn’t any more “cosmic.” Now, if something significant happened on the same year, or better yet, on the same day every time birchas hachamah came out on Erev Pesach, that would be interesting.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Can One Choose to Believe?

My sister-in-law is taking a philosophy class in college and her teacher assigned an essay on the above question. Last night sis-in-law came over to get my help writing the paper. Initially, my answer was no, we can’t choose our beliefs. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “belief” as

1. a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing
2. something
believed ; especially : a tenet or body of tenets held by a group
3. conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence

A belief is by definition something that someone holds to be true. Therefore we do not choose our beliefs. If we think that something is true, we believe it. If we think that something is false, we don’t believe it. We may change our beliefs based on new information, but that also is not a choice we make, but something we are “forced” to do by a new understanding.

As we discussed the question, though, I changed my mind about my original conclusion. While someone cannot choose to believe something he knows to be false through an act of will (like throwing a switch – now I believe, now I don’t, now I do, now I don’t…) he can choose to believe something by creating new evidence that allows him to hold as true something that he would otherwise assume is false.

Suppose we ask Mr. A what color the sky is. Mr. A declares that he believes the sky is blue. (I am not going to go here into differences between knowledge and belief. The sky example is easy, so go with it for the sake of illustrating the point.) When asked why he believes the sky is blue, he answers that he can see that this is true by looking at the sky. Mr. A is then told by an authority that the sky is, in fact, not blue but is green. Mr. A now has a choice between believing the evidence of his eyes and believing the authority. If he continues to believe the sky is blue, he has to say that the authority is mistaken. If he chooses to believe the authority, he has to come up with an explanation for why he sees the sky as blue. Perhaps his eyes are faulty and see the sky as blue, but it is really green. What if everyone he speaks to tells Mr. A that they also see the sky is blue? If Mr. A wishes to believe the authority, he can conclude that everyone’s eyes are faulty, and the authority perceives things as they truly are.

Whatever his choice, Mr. A must introduce “evidence” based on conjecture to allow him to believe. If he chooses to believe his eyes, he introduces the evidence that the authority is making a mistake. If he chooses to believe the authority, he introduces the evidence that his eyes are faulty.

So one can choose his beliefs, insofar as one can manufacture evidence is his mind to enable himself to believe that what he chooses to believe is in fact true.

This may explain the chazal that says one must believe the rabbonim even if they say left is right and right is left. One is obligated to manufacture evidence to allow himself to believe what the rabbonim say is true.

This also runs directly counter to scientific principles, whereby the question is always “is this correct” rather than “how can this be correct.” In order for one to choose his beliefs, it is necessary to start with the conclusion and come up with reasons why it is true (and possibly ignore the evidence of one’s senses.) This is not a problem with my conclusion per se. People choose what to believe and later justify it all the time. This is because the human mind is not naturally scientific. Scientific thinking is something that has to be learned.

Being able to manufacture evidence in one’s mind to allow one to believe a chosen conclusion does not, however, make that conclusion true. This is just mental gymnastics that allows one to think it is true. Objective reality does not exist in a person’s mind. After all, a person can justify any belief. The best means we currently have of determining what is objectively true is the scientific method, which assumes that a given conclusion is false until proven otherwise and (ideally) precludes the use of mentally manufactured evidence to support a conclusion.

So while we can choose what to believe by justifying our conclusions, if we are interested in the actual truth we should reject as evidence anything we manufacture out of nothing to support our preconceived conclusions.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Is God Good?

The following is an excerpt from something I wrote nearly eight years ago. I was more of a believer back then…

… Yet despite all this, there is no real evidence that Hashem is good. He told us He's good, but according to His own rules one cannot bring aidus on himself. Before we can really discuss whether or not He's good, though, we have to establish what "good" is.

One very problematic definition of good is that whatever Hashem does or tells us to do is good. It is good because Hashem is the ultimate good in the universe. How do we know this? Because everything He does is good. Why is everything He does good? Because He is the ultimate good in the universe. And how do we know this? Because everything He does is good. . . This is circular reasoning, and as such is simply ridiculous.

A major problem with defining what good really is is that it is very subjective. If there are two stores competing for business, and a customer chooses store A, that is good for store A, but is bad for store B. Thus when Hashem says that He is good, He may be telling the truth from His point of view, but what is good for Him is not necessarily good for humanity. We assume that He means that He is good for us, and this is what we need proof for.

To determine what is classified as good we must establish a baseline of what is normal. Anything above the baseline is good; anything below it is bad. For example, when it comes to food, having enough to eat is the baseline. Having extra food or especially tasty food is good, not having enough food or having unappetizing food (moldy, etc.) is bad. Establishing such a baseline is absolutely necessary. Without a baseline, a person may be tempted to claim that merely having enough to eat is good. Yet, because good is generally accepted as something better than normal, this would mean that not having enough to eat was normal. A world were this is the case is horrific. (The world actually was like that for the majority of the population for millennia, but we'll discuss that later.) So we will establish the baseline as being reasonably comfortable (healthy, fed, clothed, etc.).

When discussing whether or not Hashem is good, most people tend to glorify what appears to be good and discount what appears to be bad because it was done by Hashem. This is unacceptable. Although He is not human, for the purpose of ascertaining whether or not He is good we must hold Him accountable as one. Thus if He afflicts someone with a fatal illness and then cures the person, instead of praising Hashem that the person got well we should look at the situation as it really is. It is much like someone purposely burning down a house and then paying the owner. Not only wouldn't we praise him for paying, we would say he is a terrible person. It is no great thing that Hashem cures a sick person. After all, it is His fault the person got sick in the first place.

We have established that for something to be defined as "good," it must be above the baseline, be something that would be called good regardless of the being responsible, and can not be merely a fix for something bad perpetrated earlier. Let us now examine the evidence regarding Hashem's nature in regard to His goodness. In doing so, we start with the assumption that He is perfectly neutral, then determine His level of goodness based on the evidence.

Let's begin at the beginning. Hashem creates Adam and Chava. A few hours later they have eaten from the eitz hadas and are expelled from Gan Aden. Less then a day after the world's creation, and the first murder occurs. After a millennia and a half, the situation has gotten so bad that Hashem decides to wipe the world clean. The only survivors are Noach and his family. After a year, the water goes down and they can finally leave the taevah. Immediately, Noach, the tzaddik of his generation, gets drunk and passes out on his bed. His grandson comes along and castrates him.

This is, I'm sure you'll agree, a horrible record. Most people would place the blame on the humans. Such consistent failure to follow even basic laws, though, seems to indicate a terrible flaw in humanity. The flaws in a product can only be blamed on the maker of that product, in this case Hashem. This being the case, why are humans so horribly flawed? Only two possibilities present themselves. Either the flaw was accidental or intentional. If the flaw is accidental, that implies that Hashem is incompetent. If it is intentional, that means that Hashem is a sadist who wants His creations to fail so that He can blame then for that failure then punish them accordingly.

A few years go by, and we come to Mitzrayim. The most wonderful thing Hashem has ever done for us, supposedly, is to take us out of slavery. But Who's fault is it we were slaves? Hashem told Avraham that his children would be slaves in Mitzrayim, and we know that had Yaakov and his sons not come willingly, Hashem would have arranged to have them dragged there in chains. That is the justification for allowing Yosef to be taken to Mitzrayim; so that he would be in a position to make his extended family comfortable when they arrived. What is more, the Jewish people hadn't committed any aveiros that this slavery could be blamed on. So what we really have here is Hashem putting the Yiden through almost a century of torture so that when He came to take them out, they would be extremely grateful. Yet apparently this didn't work out, because four fifths of the Jews didn't want to leave Mitzrayim. The Nazis murdered six million Jews over the course of five years and we revile them as monsters. Hashem murdered twice as many in five days, yet the three million Jews who left Mitzrayim extolled His kindness and mercy.

What follows is a bloodbath as the nations who had lived in what would become Eretz Yisroel more or less forever were systematically driven away or butchered. The one nation which managed to trick the Jews into allowing them to stay in their homes is reviled as sneaky and underhanded. Granted, Hashem created the world and so may have the right to allocate it as He chooses, but being G-d He could certainly have done so in a less brutal manner. He can't even use the excuse that He doesn't like to perform overt miracles, because he performed a miracle when He caused the walls of Yericho to sink into the ground.

There were then several hundred years of relative peace, culminating in Dovid HaMelech's expansion wars and the prosperity of Shlomo HaMelech's reign. Then the Babylonians sack Yerushalayim and destroy the Bais HaMikdash. What did the Jews of the time do to deserve such a tragedy? They followed only the letter of the law and didn't go lifnim mishuras hadin. Such a reason could only be given by a sadist looking for any reason to punish.

Except for a short time after the Chashmonaim drove out the Greeks, from that time on for nearly two thousand years Eretz Yisroel was a province of one empire or another, none of which were very kind to Jews. The Jews were scattered over the Earth, ending up in hostile countries. There isn't a square inch of Europe or Asia that the Jews haven't been expelled from at one time or another. When we were allowed to live somewhere, it was under heavy taxation and with the constant fear of pogroms. True, we are nonetheless ridiculously prominent in world affairs relative to our small numbers, but that hardly makes up for two millennia of suffering.

Perhaps one could argue that the Jews, being Hashem's nation, have stringent standards and these standards were violated in some way severe enough to justify the horrors visited upon us. But then what of the rest of humanity? From the fall of Rome until well into the Renaissance, the majority of the population were starving, lived in tiny, filthy accommodations, were constantly swept with diseases, and worked from dawn to dusk trying to grow enough food to live on. The majority of children died before they reached adulthood. Women died in childbirth as often as not.

Then there are the incidents that stand out as being particularly horrible, such as the Black Death that wiped out a third of the population of Europe. Not to mention the repercussions to the Jews. How can such wanton murder be justified?

Even today, arguably the best age the world has ever known, the majority of humanity lives in abject poverty. The AIDs virus is an epidemic in Africa. Cancer cases are on the rise. . .

Friday, April 17, 2009

Selective Skeptical Debate – Or, Pushing Emotional Buttons

Over Yom Tov I found myself drawn into a theological debate with my brother-in-law. He is the ‘inspired’ type: he finds meaning in everything and marvels at the wonders of Hashem. For some reason he always wants to know my opinion on everything, which while flattering, leaves me in an uncomfortable position when he is asking about religion. I really prefer not to burst his bubbles, but he insists on talking about theology, and he always seems so disappointed when I poke holes in his arguments.

This time the discussion grew to include the whole family. While I think I explained my position well, it got me thinking. Why did I respond to him? Why did I allow him to draw in other family members, and why did I feel the need to explain myself to them? And while I don’t normally have drawn-out theological discussions at the table, I often give in to the urge to critique divrie torah and to challenge statements about religion that I find questionable. Why do I do this? It puts me in situations like arguing theology with my in-laws. Is it an urge to challenge irrationality wherever I encounter it?

There’s a guy I know, a friend of a friend, who is studying to be an acupuncturist. Whenever I see him the conversation always turns eventually to the “ancient Chinese” techniques that he is studying and how they are superior to modern medicine. For example, he once claimed that acupuncture is superior because practitioners take into account what the season is, while medical doctors will prescribe the same medications without regard to the time of year. He discounts the many studies that have shown acupuncture to be effective mostly for pain management, and then only equally effective to random placement of needles. He believes it works for the traditional reason, redirecting Chi, and that it can cure nearly anything.

While I think his beliefs about acupuncture are irrational, I’ve never challenged him. I just grit my teeth and do my best to ignore his statements. He has a lot invested in acupuncture, and he is never going to agree with me that “ancient” and “Chinese” do not automatically equal profound knowledge superior to modern science. So why bother challenging him and getting him upset?

Yet his beliefs about acupuncture are very similar to religious beliefs. He has an irrational belief in undetectable energy because an ancient source says that it is so, and he discounts the evidence provided by science that shows this probably isn’t true. So why do I respond to religious claims and ignore the acupuncturist?

The answer, of course, is that I don’t really care whether or not acupuncture is true. I think it isn’t, and so won’t use it. But if studies came out that showed I was wrong and acupuncture really worked by affecting Chi it wouldn’t really make a difference in my life. I just don’t care enough about acupuncture to make the discomfort of offending someone worthwhile.

Religion, on the other hand, has and does play an important part in my life. If I’m wrong about religion I’ll have to reevaluate my entire understanding of how the world functions. So while I’m no more likely to convince a frum person that yiddishkeit is full of holes than I am likely to convince the acupuncturist that Chi doesn’t exist, religion pushes my buttons and acupuncture doesn’t. I critique divrei torah because religious inconsistencies and absurdities bug me. Chi is just good for a laugh when the acupuncturist is no longer there to be offended.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Once Upon A Time…

Once upon a time there was a prince who lived in a faraway land. He was wise and peaceful, and would sit in the castle and study all day. He had an older brother who was the opposite, a loud, rough man who spent his days fighting and having adventures far from home.

One day his father the king let it be known that he had a treasure that he wished to give to the prince’s older brother. The queen thought that the wise prince should have the treasure, and helped the prince trick the king into giving it to him. When the older brother found out, he threatened to kill the prince. The prince was frightened, and fled to the kingdom where his mother had been born.

When he got there, he found a princess waiting at the well with her sheep. She explained that she needed to wait for all the shepherds to gather so that they could lift the heavy stone that covered the well. The prince singlehandedly lifted the stone from the well, allowing the princess’s sheep to drink.

The prince and the princess fell in love. But the princess’ evil father was not pleased. He made the prince work for the princess’s hand, and tried to trick him when it was time to pay the prince for his labor. The wise prince saw through the tricks, married both of the evil king’s daughters, and left a rich man.

The prince and princesses had many children who went on to found a great nation.

The End

Does this story sound familiar? It’s the story Yaakov Avinu written as a fairy tale (with some poetic license and edited to fit into a few paragraphs). I suspect that this is the way that most people relate to the stories in Chumash when learning them as little kids. And I think that this first impression stays with them and influences the way they relate to these stories throughout their lives, especially since learning Tanach is not encouraged in yeshivas.

If these stories are perceived as fairy-tales, then they are not required to make literal sense. We don’t question the story of Jack and the Beanstalk because there is a giant (which is physically impossible) living in a castle in the sky (which is physically impossible). And we don’t question the Rashi that says that Og, who is a giant (which is physically impossible) told Avraham about Lot so that Avraham would get himself killed and Og could marry Sara (which is physically impossible).

I remember sitting in class in first grade listening to the Rebbi describing Yaakov lifting the rock off the well and thinking, “Wow, an actual person named Yaakov, a long time ago, picked up a huge rock!” I imagined the well as a stereotypical ‘wishing-well’ - a low, circular stone wall with a winch and bucket and a peaked roof. On top of the wall sat a huge, oblong gray rock which jutted out from under the roof on either side. And I imagined what it would have been like for ME to have lifted that rock from the well. Then I thought about what it must have been like for Yaakov.

This all sounds a lot more sophisticated than it was. I wasn’t engaging in mental exercises to put myself in the place of the avos. I was daydreaming. I had a vivid imagination and a tendency to see myself as the hero of the story, whether I got that story from a TV show or from the story my Rebbi was telling in class.

This particular daydream made me see Yaakov Avinu as a real person living in the real world. I think this view colored all of my religious learning from that point on. If he was a real person in the real world, then what he did and things that happened to him had to make sense in the real world. It was a long, long way from that first-grade daydream to full-blown skepticism, but in retrospect I think it was a first step and an important ingredient in my later desire for the Torah to mesh with what we know of how the world functions.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Do Believers in the Afterlife Believe in After-Life?

I don’t remember how the discussion started, but somehow I found myself talking to the Rebbi about how nasty life could be. The class of bochurim in their late teens and low twenties listened as I listed potential horrors.

“So why don’t you end it?” the Rebbi asked.


“If life is so awful why don’t you kill yourself and end it?”

“Well,” I replied, “My life isn’t so bad. Besides, even if it was, killing myself wouldn’t help. It would just make me dead, and in big trouble.” I firmly believed in Olam Habo, and had learned that a special torment was reserved for those who chose to kill themselves. These unfortunates were condemned to float forever in limbo, adrift in a spiritual void.

The class laughed.

“No, no,” the Rebbi admonished. “Let him share his thoughts.”

I turned to one of the guys near me who had laughed.

“Don’t you see, killing yourself doesn’t help. It just makes more bad stuff happen to you.”
He smiled and shook his head.

I don’t remember how this ended, but the incident and its implications has stayed with me. Here was a class of twenty or so young men from a fairly wide spectrum within the frum community. Asked individually whether they believed in Olam Habo, I’m certain that nearly all or all would have said yes. Yet when I brought up the practical implications of the belief in a context that wasn’t focused directly on the belief, their first impulse was to laugh. While they intellectually held a belief in the afterlife, this belief didn’t practically inform their attitude towards death.

They found it funny when I implied that someone could be in trouble after death. I believed that “I” with all that implies was going to stand in some sort of physically perceptible courtroom and be judged after I died. I would have to account for every sin, and suicide would have been a big one. That was more trouble than I had ever been in.

I can only conclude that this class of young men had never given their belief in the afterlife much thought, and when confronted with the implications of what it would mean for the consciousness to survive death, they intuitively found it ridiculous.

Later I would notice how the Chumash never refers to an afterlife, and how the most stringent punishment is “mais yamus.” Later yet I would learn that belief in Olam Habo was not universal until after the Churban Bayis Shayni. But all of that is beside the point.

A class of frum guys with sincerely held beliefs thought those beliefs were ridiculous when hearing their implications instead of their assertions.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Boo Boo Bye Bye

My daughter is two years old, and firmly believes that a kiss makes it “all better.”

As I was getting out of bed on the second day of Yom Tov, I banged my leg against the bed frame. Without thinking, I said, “Ow.” My daughter looked up at me.
“Daddy boo boo?”
I nodded. “Boo boo on leg.”
“Oh!” She leaned down and kissed my leg. “Bye bye boo boo.”

Adorable, no?
I’m afraid, though, that my wife and I have saddled her with a superstition. It’s one that’s convenient for us. Any time she falls or bangs herself a quick kiss stops the tears and brings a smile back to her face. And it is one that she will eventually grow out of. Still, right now she believes that kisses have magical powers and instantly heal all hurts.

It made me think about other superstitions we learn from our parents. Superstitions like, say, not opening an umbrella indoors. Superstitions like not stepping over someone who is lying on the floor. Superstitions like making sure fingernails aren’t left on the floor.

What’s that? That last one isn’t a superstition? It’s in a halachah? Sorry, my mistake. Let me try again.

Superstitions like saying a given set of words will make everything all better.

What? That sounds like prayer? Oh, well, uh, um … you’re right. That does sound like prayer. And you know what? Praying for boo boos to get better and kissing them works on pretty much the same principle. It’s comforting to the one performing the ritual, and may actually make small things seem better. But when my daughter bumps her head we get an ice pack. And when she cuts herself, we get a band-aid. And we give her a kiss to help her stop crying.

When people are really sick, they go to doctors for help. And they pray. Which actually cures them?

The band-aid, or the kiss?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Rasha

It is often said in the frum world that Judaism encourages questions. One is allowed, even encouraged to ask about religious practices. Of course in practice questions, or rather, questions without pat answers, are rarely tolerated.

Tomorrow night I will be at the Seder, an event the express purpose of which is to encourage children to ask questions. What kind of questions, though, are they supposed to be asking?

The section of the arbeh banim is enlightening on this point. For the purposes of this discussion I will focus on the first two of the four sons, the Chacham and the Rashsa. It is often said that they ask the same question: essentially, “Why are you doing all of this?” The difference is that the Chacham asks because he genuinely wants to know more about the practices, while the Rasha asks merely so that he can make fun of them.

If one looks at the actual text of the questions, however, the difference between the two is not the difference between the seeker of knowledge and the boor seeking to disparage the ritual, between “good” and “bad,” but rather the difference between two different premises. The Chacham asks, “What are the testimonies, decrees, and laws that God has commanded you?” He is starting from the premise that these actions were commanded by God, and is asking for clarification as to why God commanded these things and what, exactly, God has wants him to do. The Rasha asks a similar question, but one with an entirely different premise. He asks: “What is this work to you?” That is, why are you doing these things? What is the purpose? He starts from the premise that there is no apparent reason to be doing these strange things, and asks for justification for these actions.

The Chacham is praised as wise and, according to the commentaries, is taught all of the laws of Pesach through the end of the Seder, the eating of the Korban Pesach. The Rasha is disparaged as “depraved” (Artscroll translation) and we are encouraged to “Knock out his teeth.”

When the frum world claims that people are allowed to question Judaism, what is really meant is that people are allowed to ask for clarification on how to perform rituals, or, say, how to reconcile apparently conflicting passages in the Chumash. This is the question of the Chacham, which is allowed, and in the right context, even praiseworthy. The question of the Rasha, “Why do any of these things in the first place?” ”Why assume that conflicting passages are not really a “difficulty” and can always be reconciled?” is forbidden.

My own experiences have shown me that this is true. I was always a bit of a skeptic and questioned things that didn’t make sense. (I know, I know, we can’t say it doesn’t make sense. Things that I, with my puny brain, didn’t understand.) In seventh and eighth grade this was mostly gedolim stories that I found a bit ridiculous or unlikely. It wasn’t until tenth or eleventh grade, though, that I began to really ask questions. The response at first was attempts to answer each question individually. When my rabbeim noticed a pattern, the Rosh Yeshiva called me into his office and told me that while Judaism allows one to ask questions, and he would arrange for me to speak with people who could answer my questions, I shouldn’t ask about these things in class anymore. It was one thing if I had questions, but why should other bochurim, who would never think of such questions on their own, have to be bothered by mine? It was then arranged for me to meet with various members of the community who were active in kiruv. From them I heard all of the standard apologetics (though I didn’t think of them as such at the time, and even found some of them impressive. Oh well, I was sixteen.) I also heard that I was arrogant to assume that because I couldn’t understand something there was a problem with it; that many great rabonim had also struggled with these questions, were far smarter than I, and had remained great gedolim; versions of Pascal’s Wager; and so on ad nauseum.

Over time I came to identify more and more with the Rasha – not the Eisav version of the Rasha I learned about in kindergarten, the bully who killed people and used force and intimidation to achieve his ends – but the Hagadah version of the Rasha, the son who asks, “Why are we doing these strange things?” without assuming the answer automatically is, “Because God told us to.” The Rasha in many stories from the time of the Haskalah, in which the Enlightened intellectual would ask the Rov or Rebba a logical question about Judaism or a Jewish religious practice. The Rebba invariably gives a clever, glib answer that makes the maskil look like a fool but doesn’t really answer the question. The Chassidim or talmidim all laugh at the poor fool who thinks he knows better than the mesorah, and we move on, our crisis of faith averted. More and more, I found myself identifying with the maskil in these stories rather than with the Rov or the talmidim.

Eventually this became part of my self identity. I was the guy who questioned what everyone around me took for granted. I was the guy who engaged in heated debates with my rabbeim, my parents, my fellow bais medrish bochrim. I was the misfit, the one who thought he was right while everyone around me was convinced I was wrong. Oh, I knew that there were others out there who agreed with me. All those “evil” scientists, for instance. But these were not people I had ever met or spoken to.

Then, six or seven months ago, I discovered blogs. ( I don’t know why it took so long. I’ve been online for ten years.) Here were intelligent, articulate, like-minded people from backgrounds similar to mine. I was no longer unique.

I’ve been toying with the idea of starting a blog for a while now. I’ve always liked to write. (In high school, it was my only available form of recreation.) A blog opens the possibility that someone will actually read what I write. The possibility of readers will hopefully also motivate me to write down a lot of things that I’ve been meaning to for years but just never got around to doing.

Dear potential readers, thank you in advance for the motivation, and please, play nice.