Thursday, December 16, 2010

When Humans Become Gods

Last night I watched a National Geographic documentary, “Inside North Korea.” A reporter and her cameraman went into North Korea as part of a humanitarian doctor’s team, and filmed under the pretense of making a documentary about his work. The doctor and his staff performed a thousand surgeries in ten days to remove cataracts from blind patients.

The documentary describes how North Korea is ruled by the whims of the Beloved Leader, Kim Jong Il, who enriches himself while his people starve to death by the millions. There were interviews with North Koreans who had defected, including one young man who had been a guard at one of North Koreas concentration camps. Miles square, these camps house the people who express dissatisfaction with the government – and the dissidents’ parents, siblings, children, cousins…

My gut reaction was that the world would be a better place if Pyongyang went up in a mushroom cloud. Of course, that’s not practical, but if even half of what was described is accurate, living in North Korea is nearly identical to living in Nazi Germany.

What was astonishing was the end of the documentary. The blind patients are all gathered in an auditorium, and one by one they have their bandages removed. They shout and cry with joy as they discover they can see, and immediately go to the front of the room and kneel before large pictures of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung. The crowd waves their hands in the air as the patients shout praises of Kim Jong Il and vow that their children will venerate him, that they will work harder for him, that they will help wipe out America (despite some of the equipment used in the operations having been donated by America and other Western nations).

It hit me. This is where gods come from! North Koreans worship Kim Jong Il as a god. His pictures are everywhere, just like any religious icon. Children are indoctrinated from an early age, just like in any religion. Kim Jong Il knows all, is infallible, and all good comes from him. Just like God. They even have a better theodicy than most religions. All bad things are the fault of the outside world, especially America.

Rulers in the ancient world were often worshipped as gods or the children of gods. The cults of the pharaoh or of the god-kings of Mesopotamia were probably very like the cult of Kim Jong Il. And the cults of dead god-kings were probably very like the cult of Kim Il Sung. In the ancient world, where history was mostly oral and prone to embellishment, how many centuries would need to pass before stories of the late god-kings became stories of the creator gods?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

With Gratitude to Hashem…

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a very long time. Perhaps it’s appropriate that I finally got around to it on Thanksgiving.

Among the many mildly insulting things I’ve been told by people trying to explain to me why Judaism is the Truth is the charge that I’m ungrateful. God created us, the argument goes, He provides for us, and we should be grateful to Him and follow His rules, which are themselves only meant help us live better lives.

I’d like to take this argument apart. First, the claim that we should be grateful to God because He created us. This implies that he did so at least partly for our benefit. Yet that is impossible. According to Jewish belief, before God created the world, there was nothing. Not even souls waiting to be born. We, whatever that word may imply, simply did not exist. Therefore the only Being that stood to gain anything from creation was God.

In my experience, many people have trouble with the concept of their own non-existence. They have a fuzzy notion that their consciousness was waiting off in the wings somewhere, waiting for God to call it into existence. With such a model, existence is clearly better than non-existence. The non-existent are condemned to wait forever in the wings while the existent get to fulfill their purpose.

Of course, this model makes a mockery of the concept of non-existence. A consciousness that is waiting must already exist. If God created us, then He was not merely moving us from one state of existence to a fuller, more meaningful state of existence, but was calling us into being ex-nihlo. Had I not been created, I wouldn’t miss my existence. I simply wouldn’t be.

Some concede the point, but then say that although only God stood to gain from my creation before I was created, now that I was created I should be grateful that I exist. But this is missing my point, which is that God did not do something that I need to be grateful for. That once I exist I prefer existence to non-existence has no bearing on whether I was created for my own benefit. And as I showed above, it is impossible that I was created for my own benefit.

To use an often-cited analogy, does a child have to be grateful to his parents because they were feeling frisky one day and got themselves pregnant? They weren’t having sex for his benefit, but for their own. Even in the perhaps more analogous case of a couple who desperately want a child and are deliberately trying to conceive, they aren’t doing so for the benefit of the unborn child, but for their own benefit – to fulfill their need to have a child.

So why do we expect children to be grateful to their parents? Because parents provide for and nurture their children. Someone who was abandoned at birth and adopted is not expected to show gratitude to his birth parents, but to the couple who raised him.

This brings us to the second part of the argument, that we should be grateful to God for providing for us. Even though God created us for His own benefit, now that I exist I stand to benefit from continued existence and should be grateful to God for maintaining my existence and providing me with everything I need.

Our gratitude for what others do for us is usually in proportion to the effort they expend. If someone donated a kidney to save my life, I could be expected to be grateful to that person for the rest of my life. The person who passed me the juice at dinner, not so much.

We are expected to be grateful to our parents because of the enormous effort that goes into raising a child. Yet for God, everything is effortless. Perhaps despite the complete lack of effort, we could be expected to be grateful to God because we are benefiting from his beneficence, but the gratitude expected would be on the level of the gratitude towards the person who passed the juice, not the one who donated the kidney.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Literary Narcissism

Inspired by DovBear’s post of an old meme, I’ve done something purely narcissistic and complied an arbitrary list (under a pretentious post title) of the first hundred fiction books and series I could think of that I’ve read so that I can feel more cultured than anyone who hasn’t read all of the same books.

1) The original 14 "Oz" books by L. Frank Baum
...........1. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)
...........2. The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904)
...........3. Ozma of Oz (1907)
...........4. Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz (1908)
...........5. The Road to Oz (1909)
...........6. The Emerald City of Oz (1910)
...........7. The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1913)
...........8. Tik-Tok of Oz (1914)
...........9. The Scarecrow of Oz (1915)
...........10. Rinkitink in Oz (1916)
...........11. The Lost Princess of Oz (1917)
...........12. The Tin Woodman of Oz (1918)
...........13. The Magic of Oz (1919)
...........14. Glinda of Oz (1920)
2) “The Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis
...........1. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950)
...........2. Prince Caspian (1951)
...........3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)
...........4. The Silver Chair (1953)
...........5. The Horse and His Boy (1954)
...........6. The Magician's Nephew (1955)
...........7. The Last Battle (1956)
3) The “Psammead Series” by E. Nesbitt:1.
...........Five Children and It (1902)
...........2. The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904)
...........3. The Story of the Amulet (1906)
4) The “Magic Series” by Edward Eager
...........1. Half Magic (1954)
...........2. Knight's Castle (1956)
...........3. Magic By the Lake (1957)
...........4. The Time Garden (1958)
...........5. Magic Or Not? (1959)
...........6. The Well-Wishers (1960)
...........7. Seven-Day Magic (1962)
5) The “Harry Potter” series by J.K. Rowling
...........1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
...........2. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
...........3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
...........4. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
...........5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
...........6. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
...........7. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
6) “Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe
7) “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson
8) “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson
9) “The Swiss Family Robinson” by Johann David Wyss
10) “Anne of Green Gables” series by Lucy Maud Montgomery

...........1. Anne of Green Gables
...........2. Anne of Avonlea
...........3. Anne of the Island
...........4. Anne of Windy Poplars
...........5. Anne's House of Dreams
...........6. Anne of Ingleside
...........7. Rainbow Valley
...........8. Rilla of Ingleside
...........9. The Blythes Are Quoted
11) “Little House on the Prairie” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder
...........1. Little House in the Big Woods (1932)
...........2. Farmer Boy (1933)
...........3. Little House on the Prairie (1935)
...........4. On the Banks of Plum Creek (1937)
...........5. By the Shores of Silver Lake (1939)
...........6. The Long Winter (1940)
...........7. Little Town on the Prairie (1941)
...........8. These Happy Golden Years (1943)
...........9. The First Four Years (1971)
12) The “Talent” series by Anne McCaffrey
...........1. To Ride Pegasus (1973)
...........2. Pegasus in Flight (1990)
...........3. Pegasus in Space (2000)
13) “The Black Stallion” series by Walter Farley
...........1. The Black Stallion (1941)
...........2. The Black Stallion Returns (1945)
...........3. Son of the Black Stallion (1947)
...........4. The Island Stallion (1948)
...........5. The Black Stallion and Satan (1949)
...........6. The Blood Bay Colt (1951)
...........7. The Island Stallion's Fury (1951)
...........8. The Black Stallion's Filly (1952)
...........9. The Black Stallion Revolts (1953)
...........10. The Black Stallion's Sulky Colt (1954)
...........11. The Island Stallion Races (1955)
...........12. The Black Stallion's Courage (1956)
...........13. The Black Stallion Mystery (1957
...........14. The Horse Tamer (1958)
...........15. The Black Stallion and Flame (1960)
...........16. Man o' War (1962)
...........17. The Black Stallion Challenged (1964
...........18. The Black Stallion's Ghost (1969)
...........19. The Black Stallion and the Girl (1971)
...........20. The Black Stallion Legend (1983)
14) “The Little Princess” by Frances Hodgson Burnett
15) “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett
16) “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott
17) “Little Men” by Louisa May Alcott
18) “Arabian Nights”
19) “The Iliad”
20) “The Odyssey”
21) “The Epic of Gilgamesh”
22) “The Foundation Trilogy” by Isaac Asimov

...........1. “Foundation” (1951)
...........2. Foundation and Empire (1952)
...........3. Second Foundation (1953)
23) “Farenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury
24) “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert Heinlein
25) “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells
26) “The Invisible Man” by H.G. Wells
27) “The War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells
28) “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” by Mark Twain
29) “The Prince and the Pauper” by Mark Twain
30) “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer“ by Mark Twain
31) “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain
32) The “Redwall” series (those published before I got too old for the series)

...........1. Redwall (1986)
...........2. Mossflower (1988)
...........3. Mattimeo (1989)
...........4. Mariel of Redwall (1991)
...........5. Salamandastron (1992)
...........6. Martin the Warrior (1993)
...........7. The Bellmaker (1994)
...........8. Outcast of Redwall (1995)
...........9. The Pearls of Lutra (1996)
...........10. The Long Patrol (1997)
33) “Pollyanna” by Eleanor H. Porter
34) “Starship Troopers” by Robert A. Heinlein
35) “WorldWar” and “Colonization” series by Harry Turtledove

...........1. Worldwar: In the Balance (1994)
...........2. Worldwar: Tilting the Balance (1995)
...........3. Worldwar: Upsetting the Balance (1996)
...........4. Worldwar: Striking the Balance (1996)
...........5. Colonization: Second Contact (1999)
...........6. Colonization: Down to Earth (2000)
...........7. Colonization: Aftershocks (2001)
...........8. Homeward Bound (2004)
36) “Mary Poppins” series by P. L. Travers
...........1. Mary Poppins
...........2. Mary Poppins Comes Back
...........3. Mary Poppins Opens the Door
...........4. Mary Poppins in the Park
...........5. Mary Poppins From A to Z
...........6. Mary Poppins in the Kitchen
...........7. Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane
...........8. Mary Poppins and the House Next Door
37) “Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates” (1865) by Mary Mapes Dodge
38) Roald Dahl’s children’s books

...........1. James and the Giant Peach (1961)
...........2. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964)
...........3. Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (1972)
...........4. The Twits (1982)
...........5. The BFG (1982)
...........6. The Witches (1983)
...........7. Matilda (1988)
39) “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series by Douglas Adams
...........1. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
...........2. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
...........3. Life, the Universe and Everything
...........4. So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish
...........5. Mostly Harmless
40) “The Martian Chronicles” by Ray Bradbury
41) The “Tripods” series by John Christopher

...........1. The White Mountains (1967)
...........2. The City of Gold and Lead (1968)
...........3. The Pool of Fire (1968)
...........4. When the Tripods Came (1988)
42) The “Dragonriders of Pern” series by Anne and Todd McCaffrey
43) The “Chrestomanci” series by Diana Wynne Jones

...........1. Charmed Life (1977)
...........2. The Magicians of Caprona (1980)
...........3. The Lives of Christopher Chant (1988)
...........4. Witch Week (1982)
44) “Bicentennial Man” by Isaac Asimov
45) “Tom’s Midnight Garden” by Philippa Pearce

At this point I got tired of looking up the authors names and the individual books in each series. Maybe I’ll finish it another time.

46) “The Boxcar Children” series
47) Little Lord Fauntleroy
48) A Logic Named Joe
49) The Machine Gunners
50) The “So You Want to be a Wizard” series
51) The Devil’s Arithmetic
52) The Lord of the Flies
53) The “1632” series
54) Peter Pan
55) Morte de Arthur
56) The Bobbesy Twins
57) The Three Investigators
58) Five Little Peppers and How They Grew
59) “The Hatchet” “The River”
60) Charlotte’s Web
61) The Phantom Tollbooth
62) Mrs. Piggle Wiggle series
63) The Death Gate Cycle
64) A Tale of Time City
65) Gulliver’s Travels
66) The Time Traveler’s Wife
67) “The Adventures of Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens
68) The Three Musketeers
69) The Scarlet Pimpernel
70) Johnny Tremain
71) The “Xanth” series by Piers Anthony
72) “Peter Rabbit” series
73) Dr. Suess’s books
74) “Harold and the Pruple Crayon” by Crockett Johnson
75) “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L'Engle
76) Stuart Little
77) The Rats of NIMH
78) Beverly Cleary’s children’s books
79) Alice In Wonderland
80) Through the Looking Glass
81) “The Trumpet of the Swan” by E. B. White
82) Black Beauty
83) “The Borrowers” series by Mary Norton
84) “The Littles” series
85) “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”
86) “Journey to the Center of the Earth”
87) “Heidi”
88) "The Door in the Wall" by Marguerite de Angeli
89) “Dr. Doolittle” series
90) “The Indian in the Cupboard” series
91) “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm”
92) Aesop's Fables“The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas
93) “Pygmalion” by George Bernard Shaw
94) “Planet of the Apes” by Pierre Boulle
95) "Tarzan of the Apes" by Edgar Rice Burroughs
96) Jurassic Park
97) The Lost World
98) How to Eat Fried Worms
99) “My Teacher is an Alien” series
100) The “Tom Swift” series

It was harder than I thought it would be to come up with a hundred books. I don’t remember the titles of most of what I’ve read, and I haven’t read fiction regularly in years. It was a fun trip down memory lane.

So, how superior do I get to feel? ;-)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Eisav HaRasha?

I have a vivid memory of a poster of Eisav that hung in my Kindergarten classroom. Eisav, built like an ogre and covered in squiggly red hair, stands at the head of his four hundred men, a murderous scowl on his face. I was afraid of that poster, and would try to avoid looking at it.

The commentaries paint the picture of Eisav as an evil brute, and, in contrast, Yaakov as pious and saintly. Yet these seem to be informed attributes. Eisav never does anything truly evil, and Yaakov never does anything righteous. Quite the opposite. Eisav cares for his father while Yaakov sits in the tent. The commentaries assume that Yaakov was in some sort of early-day kollel, but the chumash never implies that.

When Eisav comes home, hungry after a day out in the fields, Yaakov refuses to feed him until Eisav parts with something of value. Sure, Eisav is rather callous towards his birthright, but that’s hardly evil. Yaakov’s refusal to feed Eisav, on the other hand… Imagine two brothers, living in their parents’ house. One is cooking dinner when the other comes home half-starved from a long trip and asks for some of the food. The cook refuses to part with the food until his brother hands him the title to his car. Which brother is virtuous? Which is evil?

There’s a midrash that tries to make Eisav extra-evil in this story by explaining that Eisav had just come from committing a murder. And who was it that he had killed? Nimrod, the man who had tried to burn his grandfather Avraham alive, a man who is himself portrayed as evil. Killing Nimrod may not have been good, per se, but it was hardly as if Eisav was out slaughtering innocent children for the fun of it.

Later Yaakov lies to his father to get the brochos. The commentaries scramble to explain why it wasn’t really a lie, but the justifications are laughably weak. When Eisav finds out he is murderously angry and Yaakov flees to his mother’s family. It isn’t good that Eisav wants to kill Yaakov, but it’s hardly unmitigated evil. Eisav is justifiably angry over having his inheritance stolen. Yet somehow, Yaakov is the virtuous one and Eisav is the evil one.

Years later when Yaakov is returning to his father’s house, he is told that Eisav is coming to kill him. Again, not a good thing, but it is understandable. Yaakov sends Eisav gifts and Eisav, far from what we would expect of a thoroughly evil man, accepts Yaakov’s apology and welcomes his brother home with love. The commentaries vilify Eisav by claiming he didn’t really accept the apology and that he was trying to bite Yaakov rather than kiss him as the pasuk says, but this runs counter to the plain meaning of the text.

If we weren’t told early on that Eisav is evil and Yaakov is good, I think we would see both characters as having at best a grey morality. Eisav is violent, but Yaakov is an extortionist, a liar, and a thief. Yaakov is hardly a righteous tzaddik, and Eisav is not an evil rasha.

[I wonder if the characterization of Yaakov as good and Eisav as evil might reflect a moral system that abhorred violence as evil but saw clever trickery – such as getting Eisav to part with the birthright, or fooling Yitzchak into giving Yaakov the brochos – as amoral or perhaps even as an admirable skill.]

Sunday, October 31, 2010

“God Himself Couldn’t Sink This Ship”

According to legend when the Titanic was launched a White Star Line employee claimed, "God Himself couldn’t sink this ship!". Of course, the Titanic famously did sink. On April 15, 1912 during her first trans-Atlantic trip she hit an iceberg and went down in the North Atlantic. Over 1500 people drowned or froze to death before the nearest ships could reach them.

I remember hearing the story of the Titanic in school. The part about the claim that God couldn’t sink it was always told with grim self-satisfaction. The message was clear: don’t challenge God, or He’ll show you who’s boss. We the believers were a superior group, and the people who had flippantly challenged God with an unsinkable ship had gotten what was coming to them.

The story itself is probably apocryphal, and to be fair, I don’t think that any of my teachers and rabbeim really thought that the Titanic sank just because of what one person said. They probably never really thought about it at all; it was just a cute story to illustrate a point and make us all feel righteous about our belief in God.

The implications of the story, however, are not flattering to God. God apparently gets upset when a mere human challenges His power. Upset enough to kill 1500 people in a fit of rage. This is comparable to a father who gets upset when his three-year-old proudly claims that, “Not even Daddy could break my fort!” and in a fit of rage smashes the cardboard fort and seriously hurts the children playing inside.

Why is it that so many people don’t realize that stories like this one portray God as a petty, vindictive megalomaniac?

I suppose I should just be happy that at least in the Titanic story, God is acknowledged as the Cause of the iceberg. Usually the disaster is attributed to bad luck while those who managed to survive praise God for the miracle of their rescue.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Tiferes Yisroel Update

I objected strongly when Tiferes Yisroel implemented their policy of mandatory monitoring of student’s families’ internet usage, so it seems only fair that I should note that they seem to have thought better of it. I’ve been told by people with kids in the yeshiva that the policy hasn’t been enforced. Many of the parents never signed up for Web Chaver, and many of those who did are now letting their accounts lapse. It’s outrageous that the policy was ever implemented, but at least in practice sanity has won out.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Debugged Kashrus

A few months ago ( I think while the fish-worm nonsense was going on) I half-jokingly predicted in a comment somewhere that pretty soon the only food that would be considered kosher would be vegetables grown in cleanroom-like greenhouses. I’m sad to say that over yom tov I saw an ad for what may be the first step towards that eventuality.

“Eden”, a company that markets vegetables to the kosher market, ran an ad in Jewish newspapers that reads in part:

“Cauliflower, broccoli, and many other vegetables are home to tiny insects that are nearly invisible to the untrained eye, and are quite impossible to remove. That’s why Eden doesn’t just try to get rid of insects; we keep the insects out, from the moment of planting.…

Eden keeps insects out by growing its vegetables in greenhouses… So if you want to keep the food in your home truly kosher, trust the brand that has… a greenhouse –that keeps the tiniest intruders away.”

Now this is an advertisement, not a halachic ruling, but much like pre-washed vegetables, I can see greenhouse-grown vegetables becoming a widespread convenience bought “just in case;” then a communal norm; and finally a standard to be kept without which the vegetables may not be eaten.

And so Orthodoxy becomes ever-more restrictive. Here’s hoping I’m wrong.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Euphemisms, Shema, and Paradigms

Nothing groundbreaking here, just something that’s been rattling around inside my head for a while.

When I was a kid, my mother would say Shema with my brother and me before we went to sleep each night. When my wife puts my daughter to bed, she does the same. Lately, my daughter has been asking me to say Shema with her when I put her to bed (which is most nights).

Shema has a central place in Jewish prayer. It is one of the first tefillos we learn as children, and it is supposed to be the last thing we say before we die. Along with Shemoneh Esrei, it’s what daily davening is built around. It is generally taken to be a statement of Hashem’s monotheistic supremacy. Yet anyone who takes a moment to read it literally can see that it makes little sense as such.

I think most people in the frum world, perhaps even in the religious Jewish world, never read Shema literally. As a kid I was taught that Shema translated as, “Hear Israel, Hashem is Hashem, there is one Hashem.” But this is not what it says. It says, “Hear Israel, Yahweh is your god, Yahweh is one.”

It’s read the first way and not the second way because Yahweh and elohim are thought of as synonyms for “Hashem” when in fact Yahweh is a name and elohim is the equivalent of the English little “g” god. Shema is not monotheistic statement about the singular magnificence of God, but a monolatrous definition of a god named Yahweh. It is telling the nation of Israel that Yahweh is their god, and that Yahweh is only one god despite the widespread practice of worshipping his different aspects under different names.

This is something that would never have occurred to me when reading Shema with a frum worldview. It was only after learning about ancient religions that I realized how strangely Shema is worded – which then led me to the realization that it’s not strangely worded at all if you accept that it means exactly what it says.

You may not have noticed, but the post’s title forms the acronym ESP. Too bad I couldn’t think of a clever way to relate that to the post’s subject.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Big Brother is Watching You…

I first heard about Yeshiva Tiferes Yisroel’s new policy a little over a week ago from a friend who has a kid in the school. I wanted to write a post about it, but didn’t get around to it and let the idea go (as I do too often with ideas for posts). Yesterday DovBear posted about it, and I’ve become fixated on the outrageousness of it. I tried today to get supporting documentation from my friend for this post, but he said he’d have to look for the letters I want, and I figured I should write a post before this becomes old news in the blogosphere.

For those who may not have heard, Yeshiva Tiferes Yisroel (the Brooklyn branch of the Chofetz Chaim yeshiva system) sent a letter to their students’ parents about a week and a half ago explaining their new internet policy. (Scans of the letter can be seen at DovBear’s post.) As of at least last year, the yeshiva’s policy has been that students are not allowed to access the internet for any reason, or even to look at the computer screen when someone else is online. (citation pending) Their new policy demands, on pains of expulsion, that parents install filtering and tracking software. The letter is careful to point out that the yeshiva doesn’t have access to the logs of your web browsing: these are instead to be sent to a “chaver” of the parent’s choosing. The yeshiva does, however, receive a list of families that have purchased the tracking service, and demands that parents buy and maintain a monthly subscription if they wish their sons to remain in the school.

Given the yeshiva’s already-standing draconian internet ban for its students, this new policy can only be predicated on the premise that parents are hopeless at maintaining good relationships with their children and at monitoring their children’s activities. Only the yeshiva is able to ensure that their students don’t stray, by enforcing a policy that imposes parenting practices on their parent body. This is a gross overstepping of bounds.

A school's job is to educate children, not to raise them. We send our kids to school to learn their ABCs and Aleph Bais, math and chumash, literature and hashkafa. We do not abdicate our responsibilities or rights as parents when we enroll our children. What happens in our homes is none of the school's business.

That said, yeshivas have been intruding into their student’s home lives for years. The schools dictate where our kids can hang out on motzei Shabbos, forbid them to go to theatres or video stores, and forbid us to have TVs in our homes. I remember a story a few years back of a couple of girls who were expelled from a Bais Yaakov because someone reported to the school administration that they had been swimming at a Florida beach during their vacation in non-tznius (that is, typical) bathing suits.

As outrageous as all of the above restrictions are, Tiferes Yisroel’s policy forges into new territory.

This goes beyond dictating what students may do. This is the yeshiva reaching into the homes of their students and setting a system in place to monitor the family’s activities. This is reducing the parents of their students to children who need a watchful paternal eye and a firm hand to guide them. This is only a step or two removed from the yeshiva inspecting student’s homes the same way they inspect the dorms. This is nothing short of an invasion of privacy dressed up as the yeshiva virtuously saving us from ourselves.

The whole thing reeks of Big Brother, from the monitoring of the family’s internet activity to the problem the monitoring is meant to prevent: that students may see porn. And why is porn evil? Because in the yeshivish world, any semi-erotic thought is a thoughtcrime. Perhaps more ominous is the thought that blogs like this one represent exactly the sort of subversive ideas that the Thought Police guarded against in Nineteen Eighty Four.

This is just the latest of the outrageous policies that routinely come from the right wing of Orthodoxy. Normally when I read or hear about what some rov said or some yeshiva did, I may find it distasteful or ridiculous, but I don’t identify with it. It’s something THEY do: the fanatical Chareidim is Israel, the chassidim in Williamsburg or New Square, the ultra-yeshivish in Lakewood. This hits much closer to home. I know people who went to Tiferes Yisroel, I know people who have kids in Tiferes Yisroel, and had things gone a little differently fifteen years ago, I might have gone there myself for high school. The insanity is knocking at my door, and I find myself wishing I had better locks.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Jewish Music

Recently a friend of mine was telling me about a new (for him, anyway) song from Ohad. In his words, the tune is, “Mamish beautiful. It’s so moving…” He played the song for me, and after a few bars I started singing along – with the original words. The song he thought was such a beautiful niggun was this:

If you don’t recognize it, this is the original:

Now my friend is right, it is a beautiful tune. But it’s not exactly the holy yiddeshe niggun he thought it was.

As a kid, I never listened to “goyishe” music. Both my parents listened to all kinds of music as kids, and my mother has a collection of records from the ‘60s and ‘70s of groups like the Bee Gees and the Mammas and Pappas. For some reason, though, once they were married they stopped listening to music on the radio and never played anything except “Jewish” music. (That is, music produced by Orthodox groups.) As a teenager, I was told by my rabbeim that goyishe music consisted of lyrics about sex and tunes that aroused unholy feelings in one’s body. Not having any firsthand knowledge of non-Jewish music, I believed them.

In my early twenties I started listening to music online, and I discovered that what my rabbeim had told me just wasn’t true. Most songs aren’t about sex, and many of the tunes were beautiful, moving, stirring, and/or happy. It wasn’t all sex and jerky dance tunes.

Then I discovered that many songs passed off as “Jewish” are actually covers of pop songs. In itself, there’s nothing wrong with that. What makes it odd is that many of the people who like the Jewish versions of these songs would never dream of listening to “goyishe” music. And it’s not just the lyrics. Many of these same people won’t listen to Jewish groups that explicitly create parodies of pop songs, like Shlock Rock and Variations. According to my rabbeim, groups like Shlock Rock were only for kiruv or kids who nebech listened to goyish music. It wasn’t good, but it was marginally better than listening to the songs with their original lyrics. Clearly, they believed there was something unholy about the music itself.

Later yet I discovered that what I had heard from malcontents in yeshiva was true, that many traditional songs were adaptations of folk songs and that there really is no such thing as “Jewish” music as wholly distinct from “goyishe” music.

All pretense of there being a clear separation between Jewish and non-Jewish music vanished when I davened in a Lubavitcher shul one Rosh Hashanah and heard them sing one of the tefillos to the tune of the Marseilles. I asked someone I knew there why they were singing the French national anthem, and he told me that one of the Rebbes had taken the tune and stripped it of its tumah so it could be used for the elevated purpose of Rosh Hashana davening. My reaction was, “Riiiiight.” It remains one the most ridiculous and unnecessary justifications I’ve ever heard.

Just for fun, I put together a side-by-side comparison of some of the songs circulating in the Yeshivish community that are widely accepted as authentically Jewish next to the original versions. I know that there’s a lot of original music produced by Orthodox groups, and I’m not trying to suggest that it’s all or even mostly co-opted pop tunes. It’s just that I find these really funny. It’s probably the unexpectedness of hearing a completely different version of a song I grew up with and knowing that version is the original.

Yidden / Dschinghis Khan

Asher Bara / Land Down Under

Kol Hamesameach / Simarik

Translated into English

Baruch Hagever / I Will Follow Him

Dip the Apple / Darling Clementine

Mishenichnas Adar / Pick a Bale of Cotton

Im Lavan Garti / Cinderella

Deaf Man in the Shteeble / A Blind Man In The Bleachers

Mama Rochel / I Can Go The Distance (low part) / Schindler's List theme (high part, slightly sped up)

Umacha / Snows Of New York

Rabbi Nachman / Numa Numa

D'ror Yikra / Sloop John B

Russian folk songs in contemporary Jewish music:

Hashem Melech /C'est la vie

Lichtiger Shabbos /Close Every Door To Me

Father Dear /Little Child

Shir Hashalom /My Melody of Love

If anyone knows of more, put them in the comments and I’ll try to find videos to embed in the post.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Corrupting Influences

I was sitting on my bed in the dorm, reading a book when I heard someone moving in the other room. I stuffed the book into a desk drawer and went to see who it was.

I was expecting one of my roommates and was surprised to find the principal, Rabbi X. He seemed just as surprised to see me. I was taking different classes than most of the other students in my grade and so had a different schedule than them. Rabbi X had come to make his semi-weekly inspection for contraband and had apparently forgotten that I might be there.

“Hello.” He said.
“Hello,” I answered.
“How are you?”
“I’m good.”
“Please go back into your room until I finish in here.”
“All right.”

I retreated into my room and listened to the rustling of papers and banging of drawers as Rabbi X riffled through my roommates’ belongings, looking for contraband like radios, magazines, tabloid newspapers, and non-Jewish music and books. (“Non-Jewish” was defined as anything not published by Feldheim, Artscroll, or CIS.) When he was finished he knocked on my door. I opened it and stood in the doorway.

“Excuse me,” said Rabbi X, “Please wait in the other room while I look through your room.”
I squeezed by him, and he turned around to stand in the doorway.
“Do you have anything in here I should know about?” he asked.
I hesitated a moment, my urge to avoid trouble warring with my (na├»ve?) conviction that one should always be honest, then nodded. “Yes.”
“What is it?”
“Books.” I answered, and then added quickly, “Just some novels. They’re harmless.”
Rabbi X looked at me, a sad smile on his face. “How can you say that? If you were a shtarker boy, maybe I could believe that reading novels is harmless. But you, with all your questions…”
He shook his head. Clearly, reading these tumadike goyishe books had damaged my neshama.

Rabbi X objected to my reading novels because, as he told me at my admission interview, they often contained passages that were inappropriate for and harmful to a yeshiva bachur. By which he meant sex. To protect students from the irreparable spiritual harm caused by exposure to such licentious entertainment, all non-Jewish books were banned. Magazines were banned because they might have pictures of scantily-clad women and titillating articles. Radios were banned because students might tune in to shows that discussed sex.

(In reality, I chose books based on their entertainment value, not on how likely they were to get me aroused. My roommate often annoyed me by listening to baseball games on his contraband radio at full volume while he was in the shower, but I never heard him listen to anything to which I thought Rabbi X might object.)

In the frum world at large, media are banned almost exclusively because of their potential to expose innocent yidden to wanton licentiousness, thereby staining their neshamos and damaging their ability to properly relate to divrei kedusha. Denunciations of television and movies inevitably include diatribes against the appearance on the screen of the worst kinds of giluy arayos and shvichas damim. The central issue of the war against the internet is the easy availability of online porn. Even newspapers, the staid old maid of mass communication media, are frowned upon because they may contain untznius pictures and articles.

The yeshivish world holds that popular media are damaging to emunah and kedusha. And the yeshivish world is right.

But not for the reasons they proclaim. Exposure to media is not harmful because representations of sexuality damage our non-existent souls. It is damaging because these media present information not available within the confines of the frum world. It is damaging because it presents people who are different than the frum norm as people instead of as “goyim.” It is damaging because, in sufficient quantity and quality, such information can shatter a lifetime of sheltered indoctrination. Truths once heard from respected teachers can crumble in the face of solidly supported counter-evidence. Sacred cows are led to the slaughter one by one by outsiders who see them only as hamburger.

If I were cynical, I might say that the leaders of the yeshivishe velt have deliberately sold their followers on the idea that one should avoid exposure to the outside world because of that world’s sexual immorality in order to maintain control of the masses. I might even charitably say that they sincerely believe that they are doing a good thing: preventing people from going off the derech, something which the leaders beleive would adversely affect both those people's individual cheleks in Olam Haboh and the collective fortune of Klal Yisroel in this world.

I think, though, that that may be giving the community leaders too much credit. Separating ourselves from the depraved nations of the world is an old, old theme in Judaism and is undoubtedly one of the things that sustained the Judaism meme through millennia of persecution. The blocking out of the outside world because of its sexual immorality, and thereby preventing access to information that may cause people to stray, is just the latest iteration of an age-old adaptation.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Shaped Like a BLOGG!

I found this while reading my daughter her bedtime story. It’s from The Shape of Me and Other Stuff by Dr. Seuss, published in 1973.

Monday, June 28, 2010

1st Century Spin Doctors

Tomorrow is Shiva Assur B’Tammuz, a fast day which commemorates the day four Roman legions breached the city walls of Yerushalayim. It begins a three-week period of mourning for the destruction of Yerushalayim, ending on Tisha B’Av, the day on which the Bais HaMikdash fell.

It is traditionally held that Yerushalayim fell to the Romans because of sinas chinim, hatred between Jews. For once, the traditional explanation is right. The Jews of Yerushalayim were split into numerous political factions, all of whom were fighting with one another. Although the citizens of Yerushalayim were initially able to repel the legionnaires, the fighting between the factions took a heavy toll. Supplies were needed to withstand the siege were destroyed and fighters who could have been used to repel the Romans were instead killed defending territory from rival factions. Even at the very end, when the Romans had taken all of Yerushalayim and the last of the Jewish fighters were desperately defending the Beis HaMikdash from legionnaires in the neighboring Antonia Fortress, the three factions holding the Beis HaMikdash each held distinct areas and fought each other at the same time they tried to hold off the Romans.

The basic outline of this history is well known in the frum world. What’s interesting is the spin it’s given. For one thing, the fighters are presented as impetuous, almost evil people as compared to the pacifist Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, but that’s to be expected given that the version of events recorded in the gemara was written by people with the same values as Rabbi Yochanan. More interesting is that the cause of the destruction of Yerushalayim and the Beis HaMikdash is seen as metaphysical. Yerushalayim didn’t fall because of the practical consequences of sinas chinim: that Jewish factions were fighting among themselves, weakening each other and eroding their collective ability to stand up to the Roman legions. Rather, Jewish people were hating each other and creating a miasma of sin that hung over the nation, therefore as a punishment Hashem sent the Romans to destroy the Beis HaMikdash.

Why was a metaphysical explanation hung on what would seem to be a mundane progression of events? Why the unnecessary metaphysical spin on the idea of sinas chinim, when the simple interpretation that intra-Jewish hatred and fighting destroyed the ability to resist the Romans is adequate?

I think that the spin given to the fall of Yerushalayim and the Beis HaMikdash was both a response to the political reality in which the Jews at the time of the gemara lived and an attempt to maintain Hashem’s stature after the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash.

Were the story to enter Jewish mythos as one of military defeat, it might inspire other Jews to attempt an armed rebellion against Rome. After all, Yerushalayim’s defenders failed because they were divided! If we stand together, maybe we can beat back the Roman conquerors! To the Rabbis concerned with preserving Jewish traditions and maintaining social order, this was unacceptable. A revolt would (and several times did) bring the might of the Roman Empire down on Judea. There was little hope of Jewish rebels defeating the Roman legions, and a very real chance that rebellion would bring harsh sanctions from Rome. Far better to vilify the fighters of Yerushalayim as thugs and to present the battle as one that they were divinely decreed to lose because Hashem was punishing the Jewish people for sinas chinim.

Perhaps even more important than maintaining social order was explaining how the Romans could have destroyed Hashem’s house on earth. Framing the incident as a military defeat would mean acknowledging that the pagan Romans defeated the holy followers of the One True God and destroyed His city and His temple. Better to present the fighters as undeserving thugs who would not have merited Hashem’s help. Even more, the idea that Hashem used the Romans to punish the Jewish people for the sin of sinas chinim implies that not only didn’t the pagans defy Hashem and defeat His fighters, but that Hashem is so great and powerful that Rome, the most powerful empire in the world, exists only to be used as Hashem’s tool for chastising His chosen people.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Just Shoot Him!

I came across this cartoon yesterday. It illustrates a question I’ve had for a long time now about the David and Goliath story.

When I was a little kid, I learned the story of how David, a boy with no military experience, went up against Goliath, a giant warrior. David hit Goliath with a stone from his “slingshot,” which miraculously hit the giant Philistine in a vulnerable place right between his eyes and killed him.

The picture I formed was of a Dennis-the-menace like kid with a toy slingshot going up against an ogre. For the kid to win was certainly a miracle!

The actual story as related in nach is somewhat different.

David was a young man, not a little boy, and he used a sling, not a slingshot. I suppose my first-grade rebbe can be excused for not knowing much about obsolete weaponry, but the difference between a slingshot and a sling is enormous. Even a real slingshot (as opposed to a toy made with a forked twig and a rubber band) propels a projectile with about the same force as a BB gun. A sling, on the other hand, is a deadly weapon. From Wikipedia:

A sling is a projectile weapon typically used to throw a blunt projectile such as a stone. It is also known as the shepherd's sling.

A sling has a small cradle or pouch in the middle of two lengths of cord. The sling stone is placed in the pouch. Both cords are held in the hand, then the sling is swung and one of the two cords is released. This frees the projectile to fly on a tangent to the circle made by the pouch's rotation. The sling derives its effectiveness by essentially extending the length of a human arm, thus allowing stones to be thrown several times farther than they could be by hand.

The sling is very inexpensive, and easy to build. It has historically been used for hunting game and in combat.

Until the invention of firearms slingers were used in combat in the same way as archers. Unlike a bow, though, slings were easy to make and fired stones or cheap lead bullets instead of expensive arrows. This was not a toy. As a shepherd, David would have had experience using a sling to defend his sheep from predators. In the hands of an expert, a sling was as deadly as a pistol.

The encounter, then, was not a little kid with a toy challenging the Philistine champion. It’s more like the scene from Indiana Jones where Indy, confronted by a large man who is clearly an expert swordsman, pulls out a revolver and shoots him. All of a warrior’s skill counts for nothing if the other guy has a gun – or a sling.

So why is the incident treated as a miracle?

One reason might be that, until very recently, it was assumed that the outcome of combat depended, not on the skill of the soldiers and generals, but on the will of God. As recently as the American Civil War, General Robert E. Lee, after ordering an assault on the center of the Union line at Gettysburg (despite the protests of his subordinates), said that the result was “In God’s hands.” Lee, a master tactician, felt that tactics mattered for nothing when compared to God’s will. This sentiment was even stronger in the ancient world. Thus the outcome of a battle was seen as nothing less than the manifestation of God’s will – a miracle. The unusual circumstances of a shepherd defeating a seasoned warrior (and the shepherd boy going on to become king) are what made this particular encounter memorable.

Another possibility is that the unusual aspects of the encounter are themselves the reason the incident is considered miraculous. Even today, someone who survives a situation where he might have been killed often calls his survival a “miracle” even if there was nothing supernatural about it. Even though there was nothing supernatural about David shooting Goliath in the head, the fact that David came through the encounter in one piece might itself be reason enough to call the incident a miracle.

So, would we consider it a miracle today? If a teenaged farm boy armed with the pistol he uses to shoot at coyotes faced off against a master swordsman in single combat and won by shooting the swordsman between the eyes from twenty feet away, would that be a miracle?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

I Have Met the Other, and He is Me

I’ve been having a case of writer’s block lately. Or more accurately, a lack of inspiration. I used to have an idea for a post pretty regularly, every week or two. Lately, nothing.

I suppose part of the problem is that I want my posts to be original and unique, and most of what there is to write about has been written. I can write about my own experiences, but unless my anecdotes tie in to some bigger point, posting autobiographical accounts just seems narcissistic.

That said, I finally had an idea. It occurred to me that I instinctively feel uncomfortable around people who dress the way I do now.

The yeshivish world is obsessed with how people dress. For girls there’s tznius; for boys, there’s the uniform of black hat, pants, shoes, socks, and yarmulke and the white shirt. Even little kids starting in in 4th or 5th grade have to wear an approximation of the uniform, though their dress shirts are usually allowed to have patterns and they can wear all-black sneakers instead of shoes. I remember going shoe-shopping as a kid and having trouble finding sneakers without a trace of other color. Even a white Nike swoosh on an otherwise all-black shoe was a problem.

While it might be permissible to wear a polo shirt on vacation or while playing ball, dressing “like the goyim” was completely unacceptable. To this day, when I shop for clothing I inevitably imagine the clothes for sale on the stereotypical boorish "goy" caricature and have to quiet the voice in the back of my head that asks how I could wear the same things as one of them.

The ultimate goyish clothing is the jeans-and-t-shirt outfit that has become ubiquitous in the US and around the world. T-shirts might be tolerated in camp during the summer, but jeans, especially blue jeans, are evil. I still instinctively react to a frum guy in jeans by assuming he must be a bit of a bum. Which is odd, because a guy in jeans and a t-shirt is what I see most of the time when I look in the mirror.

I was sixteen when I realized that judging people based on the way they dress is silly. My epiphany came one afternoon when I was passing by a shul and was asked to help make a minyan for mincha. As I stood in the back looking around at my fellow congregants, I noticed one who was dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, and sandals with a leather yarmulke on his head. I instinctively judged him to be less-than: less frum, less of a decent person, not as worthy as a refined yeshiva bochur like myself.

Then I realized how absurd that was. This guy had voluntarily come to shul in the middle of the day to daven mincha with a minyan. On the other hand, I, had I not been dragooned into helping make the minyan, would have happily not davened mincha at all.

And I was thinking that I was frummer than him? Because I wore a white shirt and he wore jeans?

We judge people based on how they dress because it’s convenient. We can tell at a glance what a person is wearing; it takes hours of conversation to learn about someone’s personality and beliefs. Because we judge people based on what they wear, clothing can be a strong group identifier. In the yeshivish world, wearing the yeshivish uniform declares that you’re One Of Us – and not One Of Them. Unfortunately Them is seen as the evil Other.

I have no problem with clothing as a group identifier. The indoctrinated belief that someone who dresses like One Of Them is the evil Other… that still affects me. Even when those who dress like the Other dress just like me.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Force Behind Nature

In my last post, I asked why the author of Search Judaism had devoted so much effort to debunking evolution. This isn’t his personal crusade: delegitimizing and ridiculing evolution is common in the frum world, and attempting to disprove it is a Creationist obsession. Last night I came across a short lecture by Daniel Dennet that helped me understand why.

He made the point that absent an alternative, it seems foolish to assert that something that shows every sign of being carefully planned and designed in fact arose by itself. We live in a world with a coherent explanation of how that can happen, so to us it seems obvious that even if evolution were to turn out to be the wrong explanation, we would find a different, naturalistic explanation for the appearance of design in nature. In a world that had never had such an explanation presented, accepting the Watchmaker Argument seems the more rational position.

The universe appears designed. We must account for that. It makes more sense to say it was designed then to say that design arose accidentally, by itself. Sure, there are problems with the Watchmaker Argument, but most people aren’t interested in philosophy and don’t know about them. Even for those that do, it still may seem more reasonable to assume some guiding force designed the universe. In the absence of any alternatives, that force was assumed to be some sort of deity.

What the theory of evolution does is posit a guiding force that is wholly materialistic, mechanistic, and devoid of intelligence or intent.

The debunking of evolution, then, is never intended to “prove” God’s existence. It is instead meant to remove evolution as a viable alternative. If evolution is not the cause of the appearance of design in the universe, then that design must be accounted for. There must be some force that caused that design. In the absence of any alternatives, that force is assumed to be some sort of deity.

That there is still no evidence for God’s existence is beside the point. The point is that there must be some guiding force, and we intuitively assume that such a force must be intelligent. Intelligent force designing the universe = God. To the theist making the argument, the alternative seems to be that it all just happened randomly, which is clearly ridiculous. The argument that there might be some other, wholly physical force at work which accounts for the design we see seems to be just a placeholder. In his mind, the atheist is saying, “I have no idea why the universe seems designed, but I refuse to believe in God, so I’m just going to say that somehow it happened.”

[An interesting thing about framing the argument as a debate over what the force that produced design in the universe is is that it sets up evolution as a direct rival to God, which may be one reason why the religious see it as so threatening.]

I came across the following paragraph in The Evolution of God by Robert Wright, and I think sums up nicely what I was getting at in this post:

Darwinians who are atheists have been known to celebrate the failure of Paley’s explanation. They love to note how futile this attempt to empirically argue for the existence of God turned out to be. What they tend not to emphasize is that Paley was half right. The complex functionality of an organism does demand a special kind of explanation. It seems clear that hearts are here in some sense in order to pump blood, that digestive systems are here in order to digest food, that brains are here in order to (among other things) help organisms find food to digest. Rocks, in contrast, don’t seem to be here in order to do anything. The kinds of forces that created a rock just don’t seem likely to be the kinds of forced that would create an organism. It takes a special kind of force to do that – a force like natural selection.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter Four, section four I

I’ve finally gotten around to continuing my critique of Search Judaism. I find that I’m only able to handle small doses of the misrepresentations and faulty reasoning before it goes from entertaining to frustrating, so I’m breaking up the current section into smaller parts.

Evolution (Chapter Four, section four)
The author begins by saying, “The theory of evolution is based on several assumptions.” He promises to objectively evaluate these assumptions and to see if the theory is based on science. So far so good.

Once again, though, one has to wonder why he is putting so much effort into “debunking” evolution. Evolution merely describes how biodiversity developed. It says nothing about the existence or non-existence of God. And, also again, if evolution were proven to be incorrect, all that means is that we would have to answer, “We don’t know” to the question, “How did biodiversity develop?” “We don’t know” does not equal “God did it.” The “God did it” hypothesis would need positive evidence in its favor to be accepted, not merely the refutation of other explanations. The implicit assumption seems to be that God is the default explanation, from which we deviate only when we have other theories.

Assumption 1

The author says that Darwinian evolution claims life evolved slowly, a step at a time, and asks if this is true. He cites the Burgess Shale, a large collection of fossils in the Canadian Rockies discovered by Charles Walcott that date back to the Cambrian period and one of the few to preserve impressions of the soft parts of specimens.

The author claims that Walcott was dismayed to discover, “that all these species were simultaneously present. In other words, there was no evolution over time. This posed a real problem for evolutionists because these fossils contained representatives from every phylum except just one of the phyla that exist today. No new phyla ever evolved after the Cambrian explosion.”

To begin with, while “phylum” sounds all sciencey, it’s actually an ill-defined term and according to Wikipedia, “…"phylum" may be a misnomer indicative of ignorance. Consequently the number of phyla varies from one author to the next.” So the claim that, “No new phyla ever evolved after the Cambrian explosion,” may be a matter of interpretation.

The author then claims that Walcott hid the specimens he collected in the Smithsonian’s archives, implying that he wanted to keep them out of sight so as not to challenge evolution, and that they weren’t “rediscovered” until 1985. Yet Walcott himself published detailed descriptions of his findings in 1908, hardly the action of a man concerned about keeping his discovery from the world, and there were digs at the site every few decades by various scientists to collect new specimens, including ongoing work from the mid-60s through the mid-80s. While Walcott’s specimens may have been “rediscovered” in 1985 as the author claims (I didn't find any information one way or the other), they clearly weren’t hidden away as part of a cover-up and many thousands of specimens from the Burgess Shale were definitely available to scientists in the intervening years.

Furthermroe, this wasn’t the stunning unexpected blow to evolution that the author makes it out to be. Darwin actually devoted an entire chapter of The Origin of Species to the sudden appearance of animal groups with few or no similar ancestors.

The author cites Stephen Jay Gould’s book on the Shale as claiming that scientists were wrong about Darwinian evolution, and that life did not evolve slowly, bit by bit, but that “diverse species emerged and evolved simultaneously.” The author here gives the false impression that the Shale thus proves that biological evolution is false. What he neglects to point out is that:
1) Stephen Jay Gould was a proponent of punctuated equilibrium, the theory that species remain more or less stable for long periods, then undergo sudden, rapid evolution in response to sudden changes in the environment.
2) Even if punctuated equilibrium rather than traditional Darwinian evolution is the more common form evolution takes, it is still the evolution of one species from another, not creationism ex nihlo by an omnipotent God.
3) There are various explanations proposed by scientists for why many of the animals preserved in the Burgess Shale appear without antecedents. Walcott proposed that the period in which the Cambrian animals found in the Shale evolved did not lend itself to fossilization and so the animals from that period are absent from the fossil record. Less speculatively, there are scientists who argue that many of the forms found in the Cambrian period are similar to types that evolved well before then, and there is debate as to whether the Cambrian period really represents an “explosion” of species.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Bias and Rationality

In the debate between believers and skeptics, each side often accuses the other of holding their positions for reasons other than the unassailable rationality of their worldview. To be blunt, each side accuses the other of holding the position they do due to a failure of character. The skeptic accuses the believer of being intellectually lazy and dishonest, of holding onto his belief because it is comforting, or because of his biases and upbringing, or because he has too much invested in his religion, or, most often of all, because the believer has simply never given his beliefs any real thought. The believer accuses the skeptic of denying the existence of God and the truth of his religion because the skeptic is angry at God, or because he has too much invested in being a non-believer, or, most often, because by denying God and religion the skeptic is then free to live a amoral hedonistic lifestyle.

It is interesting to note that the believer’s accusation is more vicious than the skeptics’ equivalent. The skeptic accuses the believer of wanting to hold onto his culturally-indoctrinated beliefs and of never bothering to challenge beliefs that he was taught to regard as self-evident. We all have unexamined beliefs, and most of us have neither the time nor the interest to investigate them all. You might even think of it as pragmatic laziness. While unexamined beliefs may leave one with an inaccurate perception of reality, assuming that the world is as our culture teaches us it is is not a moral failing.

The believer on the other hand accuses the skeptic of being an amoral hedonist, blinded to the Divine Truth by his base desires. What’s more, this is not the empirical consensus of the believing community, arrived at through their interactions with skeptics. It is instead a religious dogma that dictates only an immoral person would deny God’s existence. It can be found in sayings and anecdotes: One must be a slave to God or to his desires; There are no kashyos, only teirutzim. The skeptic, then, is a disgusting person who wallows in the base fleshly pleasures of the material world and tries to fool himself into believing there is no God so that he can indulge himself without feeling guilty. Such a person should be shunned, cast out of the community to protect the innocent and pious, and kept away from our precious impressionable children.

As insulting as the believer’s characterization of the skeptic’s motives is, I thought that it might be prudent to investigate whether the core claim has any merit. Stripped of its invective, the believer’s accusation is that the skeptic rejects God and religion not because he has come to the conclusion through rational inquiry that God doesn’t exist, but because he desires to do things which if God existed would be unwise. Rejecting God is therefore a direct result of the skeptic’s desires and a necessary step for his fulfillment of those desires.

In this conception of the skeptic’s motivation, the skeptic’s method of reaching conclusions mirrors that of the believer. The believer accepts on faith that God exists, and then rationalizes that belief. The skeptic “accepts on faith” that his desires should be fulfilled, and then rationalizes away God. (All right, it’s a little more subtle than that, as the claim is usually that the skeptic’s desires are unconsciously influencing him rather than an explicit statement that his desires must be fulfilled, but the parallel stands.)

Is there any merit to this? Might my desires be influencing me and blinding me to the existence of God and the Truth of Judaism?

I like to think of myself as rational, but I am all too aware that people, as a species, are not nearly as rational as we think we are. We all like to think that we’re the exception, but objectively I must admit that I’m probably not. While I was in school from time to time professors would present examples of how our minds trick us. In the back of my mind I always assumed that I would be able to see through the trick, that I was in some way superior to the plebes who suffered from the illusions of their own minds. Again and again, I was dismayed to find that I was as susceptible as anyone else.

Objectively, then, I cannot claim that I am wholly rational. As much as I may try to approach everything rationally, inevitably I am limited by the same human frailties as everyone else. I have my biases and preconceptions, my culturally-influenced worldview, and yes, my desires.

So, is my rejection of God’s existence wholly rational?

Surprisingly, I have to conclude that it’s not.

This is not to say that it is irrational. I think I have a sound rational basis for my skepticism. But had I been perfectly happy with all aspects of frum life, I would never have gone this route. My rejection of Judaism’s truth-claims does not stem wholly from a dispassionate evaluation of the religion, but from a base that includes a distaste for certain communal norms and the related desire to disregard them. This was one of the many factors that contributed to my skeptical stance, and I cannot disregard the likelihood that it influences my judgment.

Does this mean my conclusions are invalid? Not at all. To quote Philip K. Dick, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.” Do my biases, my “desires,” lead me to favor certain conclusions? Yes. Does that mean that those conclusions are wrong? No. I try to remain aware of my biases and to examine all arguments objectively, even though my instinctive reaction may be to dismiss theistic arguments out of hand. What we must all remember, believer and skeptic alike, is that whatever our desires, whatever our biases, reality is what it is. Brute facts are care nothing for our desires. And it is upon the facts that we must base our conclusions.

So while I didn’t arrive at my current worldview wholly through dispassionate rational inquiry, I think I am justified in rejecting the believer’s characterization of the skeptic’s motives. My conclusions, while undoubtedly influenced by my desires and biases, do not rest upon them but upon the facts.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Best of
The Rasha
My first post. A brief explanation of my point of view.

Wild Mass Guessing
A discussion of why so many religious explanation seem so convoluted, with references to TVtropes, a favorite site of mine.

Objective Morality, or, God’s Classroom Rules
Why we’re so hung up on morality and its failure as a proof for religion.

Duex Ex Homo Sapiens
Possibly my favorite post, it references all of my favorite intellectual pursuits: theology, philosophy, psychology, and history. It’s also particularly well-written, if I do say so myself.

Does Being Wrong Make Something Wrong?
What is a valid way to evaluate the truth of a religion, and does the morality of a religion’s tenets have any bearing on its truth.

Search Judaism critique
The first post in the series, serving as a stand-in for the series so far. (I’ll be continuing it in the near future. Really!) Writing the critique has finally given me a practical use for all the bits of trivia I’ve picked up, and is basically a game of spot-the-error. That said, at least the author tried to approach religion rationally, something that the majority of people never do.

Blogging / debating
The Rasha
Selective Skeptical Debate – Or, Pushing Emotional Buttons
Am I A Zealot?
Live and Let Live

Boo Boo Bye Bye
Do Believers in the Afterlife Believe in After-Life?
Is God Good?
Why is Faith a Virtue?
Truth in Religion and Science: Working Backwards, Working Forwards
The Virtue of Faith Despite Adversity
Wild Mass Guessing
Duex Ex Homo Sapiens
Mechanistic Metaphysics
Does Being Wrong Make Something Wrong?
Free Will at Gunpoint
For Want of a Nail…

Path to skepticism
Once Upon A Time…
Fences of Tissue Paper
Growing Up Different
Effortful Thinking

Response to articles / things read
Cosmic Coincidence
Eating is Sexy
Bloggers vs. Conformists
Bloggers vs. Conformists Redux
Shabbos Reading
Defenders of the Faith
Haman’s Ingratitude

Reminiscing / culture
The Girl in the Blue Uniform
Condemned to the Fiery Pits of Shul
An Exercise in Self-Righteousness
Don’t Be A Baal HaBayis
The Unwashed Masses
Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll
People Like Me in Entertainment Media
V’shinantam L’vanecha…
The Kollel Meme

Is it Wrong to be Immoral?
Objective Morality, or, God’s Classroom Rules

For Whom do We Mourn
Ellul, the Month of the Storm God

Does the Future Matter?
The Worth of a Sandwich

Search Judaism
A Gift of Apologetics
Search Judaism – A Critique: Introduction & Chapter One, section one
Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter One, section two
Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter One, section three
Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter One, section four
Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter Two, section one
Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter Two, section two
Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter Two, section three
Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter Three, section one
Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter Three, section two
Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter Three, section three
Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter Three, section four
Search Judaism – A Critique: Part Two (I)
Search Judaism – A Critique: Part Two (II)
Search Judaism – A Critique: Part Two (III)
Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter Four, section one
Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter Four, section two
Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter Four, section three
Search Judaism – A Critique: Clearing up Contradictions

For Fun
The Agudah Convention (A Parody)
The Devil’s Dictionary
I’m Psychic!

Belated Anniversary Post

It’s now been over a year since I started this blog. I meant to post on the actual anniversary, but I was away for Pesach and have been busy or not in the mood since I got back.

A year’s a long time. I may not post frequently, but I usually write every couple of weeks, and for a while I was writing every day. Since I’ve started following the blogosphere I’ve seen some good blogs (and some not-so-good ones) start up, run for a few months, then stand abandoned when their authors disappear from cyberspace. So, congratulations to me!

(Why thank you, me.)

When I started writing I thought I would record some of the incidents and insights in my life that have brought me to my current position on religion. I’ve done some of that, but I’ve also found myself writing frequently about theology, morality, and philosophy. I’ve found that writing out my ideas helps me to understand my own position better, as it forces me to lay out the ideas and arguments and explain them rather than leave them as a confused jumble in my head. Feedback from other people helps to refine ideas, either by modifying or discarding mistaken bits or by making me better define and explain them. So, thank you to all the commenters.

At this point, I suppose I could write about the purpose of the blog, perhaps about what I hope to accomplish. Except that it doesn’t really have a purpose. It’s just a hobby. Sure, blogs are what helped me realize I wasn't unique, that there are other people who grew up frum who think the same way I do, and it’s great to be able to communicate with like-minded people (and even with people who vehemently disagree, as long as they are interested in polite discussion). If reading this blog helps someone else connect with an online community, great! But I wouldn’t make too much of it. Mostly, it’s entertainment.

The following are posts that I somewhat arbitrarily decided to include in a “best of” list. The next post is a categorized index of the last year’s worth of posts. I hope you all enjoy them as much as I do.

The Rasha
My first post. A brief explanation of my point of view.

Wild Mass Guessing
A discussion of why so many religious explanation seem so convoluted, with references to TVtropes, a favorite site of mine.

Objective Morality, or, God’s Classroom Rules
Why we’re so hung up on morality and its failure as a proof for religion.

Duex Ex Homo Sapiens
Possibly my favorite post, it references all of my favorite intellectual pursuits: theology, philosophy, psychology, and history. It’s also particularly well-written, if I do say so myself.

Does Being Wrong Make Something Wrong?
What is a valid way to evaluate the truth of a religion, and does the morality of a religion’s tenets have any bearing on its truth.

Search Judaism critique
The first post in the series, serving as a stand-in for the series so far. (I’ll be continuing it in the near future. Really!) Writing the critique has finally given me a practical use for all the bits of trivia I’ve picked up, and is basically a game of spot-the-error. That said, at least the author tried to approach religion rationally, something that the majority of people never do.

For the full index of posts, click here.