Thursday, July 30, 2009

For Whom do We Mourn

Today is Tisha B’Av. And I have to ask myself, why am I fasting? I don’t care that there isn’t a Bais Hamikdash, and I wouldn’t be particularly happy if the Bayis Shlishi was built. What’s more, the date itself is of dubious significance. The Bayis Rishon may have been destroyed on 9 Av, the Bayis Shaini probably wasn’t, and as for all those other things that are supposed to have happened on Tisha B’Av, most didn’t. Not to mention the many, many tragedies that undisputedly happened on other days. Why then fast today? Why mourn?

Unlike many religious rituals, I think it is relatively easy to find meaning in Tisha B’Av. True, most of the tragedies in Jewish history did not happen today. But once we accept that, and see Tisha B’Av as a day somewhat arbitrarily chosen to commemorate Jewish tragedies, it can have real meaning. Its like Americans celebrating Veterans Day on November eleventh, the day WWI ended. Most of the soldiers in America’s history didn’t fight in WWI, but this is the day somewhat arbitrarily chosen to honor them. Tisha B’Av, whatever its historical significance (or lack thereof) can similarly serve as a day to remember and mourn the people lost in Jewish tragedies.

We mourn today for them:

For the Jews who (may have) suffered in Mitzrayim.

For the Jews killed by the Pilishtim.

For the Jews killed by the Babylonians.

For the Jews killed by the Seleucids.

For the Jews killed by the Romans

For the Jews oppressed and expelled by the Christian governments of Europe.

For the Jews of the Rhine Valley killed during the Crusades.

For the Jews massacred at York.

For the Jews oppressed by the Caliphate.

For the Jews expelled from Spain and who suffered under the Inquisition.

For the Jews killed in the pogroms of Central and Eastern Europe.

For my grandmother, who grew up watching the Nazis march past her parent’s Berlin apartment singing Deutschland Uber Alles, and who’s best friend was killed in Auschwitz.

For my great-grandfather, who’s Iron Cross from WWI lies at the bottom of the North Atlantic, sent there with the rest of his worldly possessions by a German U-boat when it torpedoed the ship on which he was fleeing from the Gestapo.

For my wife’s grandmother, who still has blue numbers on her arm.

For the millions who were not as fortunate as my relatives.

For those persecuted and expelled from Muslim countries in the 1950s.

For those who continue to be persecuted today because they are Jews.

For them we mourn.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Unwashed Masses

Among the intelligentsia there is often found the attitude that the general public, “the masses,” are ignorant and incapable of understanding the intricacies of many, if not most, issues. This seems to be the attitude that chazal take towards the average Jew. They assume that he is ignorant, narrow-minded, and not overly bright. To counterbalance the ignorance of the masses they instituted hundreds of laws to protect the biblical commandments.*

My knee-jerk reaction this condescending view of “the masses” is one of disgust and denial. Individually, most people are reasonably intelligent, and while some may willfully ignore whatever they don’t like, surely something they considered important (like mitzvos) they would be capable of understanding and learning enough about to avoid serious transgressions.

Yet I find that public forums on the internet seem to support the attitude that the masses are ignorant, narrow minded, and not overly bright. Any thread read and commented on by large numbers of people (such as news articles, YouTube, etc.) is inevitably is full of ignorant, baseless opinions and often degenerates into racism and conspiracy theories.

The question is, are the commenters on these threads representative of the general public? Or do these types of forums self-select the left side of the bell curve?

If the former is true, I may be forced to admit that chazal had a point.

*I don’t really understand how this is helpful. There is a perception that violating a midirabanan is less stringent than violating a midioraisa. Yet we have a mitzvah dioraisah to listen to the rabonim, which means that violating a mitzvah dirabanan is really a violation of a dioraisah. Now we have the rabonim who come along and prohibit hundreds (thousands? millions?) of things that are muttar midioraisah. If we violate one of the rabbinic prohibitions, we're oiver the mitzvah dioraisah of listening to the rabonim. All the rabonim have done is to give us many, many more opportunities to transgress. How is this helpful?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Objective Morality, or, God’s Classroom Rules

An often-repeated argument in favor of religion is that it provides an objective morality. Without God, the argument goes, there is no objective morality, because without a Supreme Being to tell us what is right and wrong, my interpretation of morality and your interpretation of morality are equally valid. Yet there must be an objective morality, therefore God must exist and He must have provided us with a moral code.

There are a number of problems with this argument.

1) The biblical code of morality does not match our modern-day sensibilities. While we would still agree with commandments such as “do not murder” and “do not commit adultery,” owning slaves, selling our young daughters, and killing witches goes against our (current) moral instincts. A God-given moral code should be applicable in all times and places.

2) It reduces us all to children, unable to control ourselves and in need of parental rules to restrain us from running wild. This may in part explain why people cling to this argument. Growing up we are used to rules being imposed on us by parents, teachers, and other rule givers. As adults we continue to submit ourselves to the authority of governments and other social institutions. It seems only natural that there should be a Supreme Rule-giver Who can tell us what we should do in all situations. An objective morality acts as a giant Classroom Rules poster plastered on the wall of the universe that everyone is bound to obey. If we’re good little boys and girls we get prizes in Heaven; if we break the rules we get detention in Gehenom.

Additionally, an objective morality makes decision making much easier. There is a set of rules constraining our choices, and when faced with a dilemma, one can compare the options to the rules and choose the option that violates the rules the least. We humans, in general, take as many shortcuts as possible when making decisions. If we had to sit and think through every decision we make, weighing the pros and cons and deliberating the best course of action, we would never get anything done. We use heuristics (rules-of-thumb) to help us make decisions, and a moral code can be thought of as an elaborate heuristic.

Thus an objective morality is not a necessity to the functioning of the universe the way that, say, the law of gravity is. Its just something that we would like to have because it would be convenient for us and make us feel certain about the way we and others should behave.

3) Most importantly, the argument is flawed because it makes the assumption that there really is such a thing as an objective morality. The theistic argument as stated is internally sound.

A) Without God (or some outside force superior to the individual person) there is no objective morality.
B) There must be an objective morality.
C) Therefore God must exist.

The problem is that B isn’t true. There is no reason that there must be an objective morality.

So without God there is no objective morality?

Deal with it.