Sunday, February 21, 2010

Defenders of the Faith

I recently had an interesting, if unpleasant, experience after commenting on Someone left a link on XGH’s blog to an article there by Rabbi Fingerer, the author of Search Judaism.

Here I feel I should mention that I have nothing against him. That I got a copy of his book as a gift is purely a coincidence. Since I started critiquing Search Judaism I’ve been noticing articles in frum newspapers by Rabbi Fingerer. On the whole, he seems intelligent, tolerant, and well-meaning. That he happens to often get his facts wrong is almost beside the point. I truly think that if more people in the frum world took his approach, tolerating questions and genuinely trying answer them, the society would benefit greatly.

I left a comment on the article at Matzav explaining what he got wrong. I had a hazy notion that Rabbi Fingerer might respond and we might have an interesting discussion. At the very least, I could have an intelligent discussion with other commenters. To my dismay, I was instead subjected to vicious personal attacks by the commenters there. It rattled me enough that I responded in defense of myself, something that I realize now I shouldn’t have done. I have no desire to be a troll, especially not accidentally.

I did notice a few interesting things about the comments people left. In no particular order: they assumed that there was something wrong with me for disagreeing with them. They seemed to think that words and phrases could be used for emphasis regardless of their actual meaning. They think that typing in all caps makes their point stronger. They seemed unable to believe that there could be more than one person in the world who disagreed with them, claiming that I and two other commenters who also expressed disagreement must all be the same person. One commenter even claimed that he knew me from yeshiva – apparently he was in school with someone who had questions, and assumed I must be the same person.

Worst of all was that no one bothered addressing the arguments. The conversation went something like this:
Article: A, and B are true, because of C.
Me: B isn’t true, and A is because of Y.
Commenters: You’re a poopyhead!

Of course, they didn’t actually call me a poopyhead. What they said was far more viscous. I finally understand the jokes about atheists eating babies. Here was a group of people that knew absolutely nothing about me, yet assumed I was a horrible, vile person they couldn’t let their children near simply because I disagree with their religious views. Okay, a detail that’s fundamental to their entire worldview, but still, that’s hardly a basis for judging someone’s character. Even the person who found my blog (and he seemed very impressed with his “research,” as though figuring out how to use Google was a major accomplishment) didn’t bother to do more that skim a post or two, as evidenced by accusations that were at odds with what I have actually written.

What surprised me the most about all this is how much it bothered me. Here was a group of random strangers, whose opinion could in no way affect my life, even if they by some chance found out who I am, and yet the barrage of vitriolic comments and insults shook me. Social censure by an entire group is a powerful thing.

After giving it some thought, I realized that they weren’t reacting to me personally. They were reacting to a perceived attack on the foundations of their worldview. They were attacking a caricature, the ATHIEST, who they were free to tear down in defense of their beliefs. The particular person who triggered the defense, or even that there was a real person they were attacking, was irrelevant.

I also realized that the mass insults were sophisticated defense mechanism evolved by the religious meme. Questioners are to be insulted, taunted, and shunned. By these means they can be forced to agree with the group, at least outwardly, thereby nullifying the threat to the meme’s continuation.

Lastly, thinking about the social dynamics of my experience made me realize that I don’t actually know any people like those commenters. I’ve lived in a frum community all my life and nearly all of my friends are believers. All of them know, more or less, my opinions on religion. Some enjoy discussing it with me, and some don’t, but none of them hold it against me. The commenters on Matzav are those whom all the frum people I know think of as the right-wing crazy people.

I’ve come to see this episode as a learning experience, a first-hand taste of just how central religion is to some people’s worldview and how unpleasant they can be when that worldview is threatened.


  1. "I also realized that the mass insults were sophisticated defense mechanism evolved by the religious meme."

    Respectfully disagree here. There's really nothing at all very sophisticated about insulting people whose arguments you can't rebut.

  2. Oy. Sorry to hear about that. That's pretty jarring.

    My favorite:

    "You love Freud and hate G-d."


    I think your analysis sounds about right. They've devoted their lives to this; they need some defense mechanism from actually having to think about it, and many may not actually have the knowledge or education to engage in rational apologetics.

  3. Came here to say that not everyone reading Matzav disagrees with you even if I didn't comment.

  4. David, I didn’t mean that the reaction (insults) was sophisticated, but that as a defense of the meme it is sophisticated. It depends on social dynamics, a belief that censoring questioners of beliefs is the proper thing to do, and a gut reaction among the individuals in the society that causes them to vilify questioners.

    JG, yeah, that was my favorite too. Hating God is a classic accusation, but love Freud? I’m not even sure what that’s supposed to mean.

    Anonymous, I appreciate that.

    Interestingly, the article also appeared on the Jewish Press’s website, and a commenter there raised many of the same issues I did without getting any response, let alone vilified. And it seems that many of the frum commenters on DovBear had the same issues I did with the article.

  5. I just read the comments in reaction to your comments on and I must say that I am quite impressed with your ability to withstand withering personal insults while turning the other cheek - you are a true Christian :). The name calling on that site is silly and unsophisticated and stands to turn far more Jews off from Orthodoxy than any heresy you might write on your blog. Since I am less disciplined than you, I feel compelled to write my reaction to the comments on that blog and to the abuse you took. Here goes - WHAT A BUNCH OF FUCKING IDIOTS!!

  6. yes, I am also appalled at the censorship habits and the comments on religious-orthodox blogs.

    I am religious myself (a BT). But their information policy reminds me of the democratic republic of Germany.

    Matzav, Lakewood scoop and many other hareidi newsblogs censor any comment that does not agree with them.

    I encountered the phenomenon you describe: taking several commentators for the same person just because they happen to disagree with the mainstream opinion of the blog on several hareidi blogs, including one that calls itself "daas torah" and another one that calls itself "mekubal".

  7. I was surprised that they posted my comments at all. I wonder if it was a deliberate attempt to create controversy and generate traffic or if the moderaters at Matzav are more open-minded than their readership.

  8. As a fellow FF (formerly frum) atheist and kindred spirit in every way, forgive me (I always feel in a tenuous, compromised, and hypocritical position when referencing a word that originates from religious sources) for being candid with you. I think that you are overreacting and that is an understatement.

    Let's call a spade a spade. You know that there is a raging controversy in the religious world about the ethics of using the Internet. They view the permissiveness, etc. as a threat to the sanctity of the home. This posture has validity. Between pop up ads, spam, and licentious websites there is a lot to worry about. As non-believers this obviously doesn't concern us, as we have no souls to taint. However I do sympathize with the concerns of the religious community.

    This is where you (and I) come in. Your blog, and our colleagues' blogs, are wonderful balms, a veritable panacea, for people like us. It disparages and ridicules religion and godliness (I refuse to capitalize the "g" )and tries its darnedest to disprove and repudiate Judaism's maxims and core beliefs. You dedicate untold hours of your life to the cause. Which is wonderful!

    But, and I stress and accentuate the "but" we know that our views are toxic to Judaism and the Jewish way of life. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that the religious community is concerned about the Internet. It exposes people to a wealth of ideas and mores that are very inappropriate.

    The way the religious community reacted to the dangers of the Internet is to create religious-friendly websites and news sites, that are engaging and interesting but not indecent or antagonistic.

    What you've done is enter into a pristine-like territory and tried to share our views. This, I believe, is (in my system of morality) a breach of protocol and proper ethics. I can't mince words--it is trespassing. My ethical proclivities urge me to share this with you, despite my reservations (I have a hard time coming to the defense of those who believe that there was a 1st Temple in Jerusalem and that the Assyrians lost the battle to the Jews).

    We all know that the entire basis of Judaism is Sinai. Take away Sinai and you've got nothing. By you insinuating and disclosing our belief that Sinai is a farce, you've basically gone into an AA meeting and offered everyone present alcohol. While it's your moral right to do so, it is exceedingly discourteous and immoral.

    I actually respect our detractors who commented on the Matzav site. They felt violated and they were reacting with disgust and were merely attempting to champion their faith.

    If someone offended or profaned my mother, you bet your Yarmulke (I am more advanced than you as I disbanded with that relic years ago) that I would stand up and come to her defense. Though I'm still not sure why I am hardwired to do that.

    My advice to you, my wise mentor, is to keep your views amongst us wayward folk and leave the less enlightened alone. They really are harmless and are entitled to a place on the Internet that they can call home.

    By the way I strongly suggest you delete the profanities on the comment section. It will just strengthen our detractors. They will think that we are a bunch of coarse and vulgar hooligans, with unbridled appetites for forbidden fruit. There's no point in disclosing this.

    Congrats on the baby, though I much rather prefer pets--they don't make me second guess my beliefs. You know what I mean.

    Keep up the great work and welcome back from your respite. We missed you.

  9. Mitchell, I understand what you’re saying – up to a point. Yes, I trespassed on their territory. And had they politely asked that I refrain from expressing such opinions on their site, I would have apologized and that would have been the end of it. That’s not what happened.

    As a contrast, I’d note that most skeptic blogs are only too happy to host polite debate from believers. There’s no challenge in preaching to the choir.

    I did not claim that Sinai is a farce. I’m not so naïve that I would think the Matzav community would be open to such statements. I merely pointed out that the phrase “verified historical fact” which one of the commenrters had used has a concrete definition, and matan torah doesn’t fit the criteria. I even acknowledged that the lack of corroborating evidence is in no way proof that it didn’t happen. (The difficulty of proving a negative is a different discussion.)

    As for the “untold hours,” it’s a hobby. I’ve got lots of hobbies, and right now way too much time on my hands. I have no cause. As I said in a post a few weeks ago, I don’t care what other people do, as long as they don’t feel compelled to force me to do as they do.

    I would prefer people don’t use profanity. My parents felt very strongly that profanity was wrong, and have left me with an irrational bias against its use. Still, in general I don’t delete comments. If I’m going to leave up the filth JP writes, I’m certainly not going to delete the comments that make me smile.

    Thank you for the kind words in your last paragraphs.

  10. Thank you for posting your comments on Matzav. Saved me from writing the same points, and calmed me down a bit - EliThePoet (new closet athiest)

  11. Sorry, my friend. I agree with Mitchell.

    Your posting on Matzav was an intrusion of sorts and borders on harassment. They weren't impressed with your insincere effort to be "one of the boys" by citing a scriptural or using a Hebrew word or two. They saw through your veneer and were hurt by your lack of Derek Eretz.

    The reason they lumped you together with the other people commenting is because they didn't envision or entertain the notion that more than one person would have the gall to be a provocateur.

    I think his analogy of the AA meeting is apropos. No matter if you think you are espousing the truth even an atheist should have better manners.

    I think you do damage to the cause and betray our mission by antagonizing these people. They start thinking that it is impossible to be moral and irreligious and that we are desperate for converts.

  12. That last Anon is a phony. " even an atheist should have better manners" gives him away. He's probably not even a kofer. Frum troll alert!

  13. G3: Aha, so now you know what it's like! (kidding) btw, can i get a link to the matzav thread?

    The Internet is conducive to such "experiences." Under the cover of anonymity, people tend to hurl the most offensive invective and be as unforgiving and impossible with their opponents as possible. It's a shame.

  14. OFD:

    I resent having my Kofer credentials challenged. Don't hit below the belt. I've done much more than you can ever dream or be capable of to earn my title.

    When I said "even an atheist should have better manners", I was projecting their feeling, not mine. Ever study psychology? You are intellectually inept if you couldn't figure that one out.

    Never, ever, assault someone posting here with a pejorative such as "frum troll". It is crude and deprecating.

    You just complained about people on the Internet hurling offensive invective and you did it to me. Double standard!

    As a veteran, I am merely advising our younger host to proceed with great caution as being impulsive and posting on religious sites is counterproductive.

    If I didn't care, I wouldn't speak. I sincerely mean well.

    The reason I post anonymously is because of people like you who hurl insults and don't judge favorably.

  15. " borders on harassment?" "Gall to be a provocateur?"

    Seriously? In my book, if someone requires such sheltering that the most coolheaded questioning is harassment, it's their problem, not that of the one questioning them. That's what comments sections are for: comments. What, these people are being harassed if an internet comment disagrees with an article's claims? Please.

    What G3 demonstrated, IMHO, is that it is possible to be a)intellectually critical, b)coolheaded and polite on the internet even when disagreeing someone.

  16. Been there done thatFebruary 23, 2010 at 4:55 PM

    JG is not addressing Mitchel's well formulated premise.

    No matter what our agenda, he's got a point.

    Besides using an alias and saying "Midvar Sheker Tirchak" to a respected rabbi is not being coolheaded and polite.

    I think that we should concede on this one.

  17. What agenda? What mission? What are you talking about? I don't think I share any agenda with you, whoever you are.

    Some people like intellectual honesty, and so speak up when they see what they think is dishonesty. If one is a mature and rational adult, one should be able to either argue back or say, "I choose not to have this discussion."

    And managing to respond seriously on the intellectual plane to the accusation "you love Freud and hate God" is, in my book, the heights of intellectual coolheadedness.

  18. Anonymous, I already said that I agree with Mitchell’s point that it was an intrusion. I still think the reaction was unwarranted.

    I wasn’t trying to “be "one of the boys" by citing a scriptural or using a Hebrew word or two.” Culturally, I’m as yeshivish as any of them. I think that entitles me to use the same language. Nor do I think I “lacked Derech Eretz.” I wasn’t flippant or disparaging. That my point of view makes them uncomfortable is unfortunate, but feeling comfortable at all times is not a right.

    > The reason they lumped you together with the other people commenting is because they didn't envision or entertain the notion that more than one person would have the gall to be a provocateur.

    I suppose that’s possible, but it doesn’t make it any better. Whether it’s that they can’t believe more than one person would disagree with them or they can’t believe that more than one person would risk offending them, it shows a complete inability to understand that there are real people with other points of view.

    > I think you do damage to the cause and betray our mission by antagonizing these people. They start thinking that it is impossible to be moral and irreligious and that we are desperate for converts.

    Let me say it one more time. I. Don’t. Care. I have no cause, and I don’t really care what anyone thinks. (At least, intellectually, I don’t care what they think.)

    OTD, I had the same thought, but I’d point out that I stopped talking to them. You’re not going to like this, but it also occurred to me that they’re insisting that everyone who disagreed with them was the same person is similar to your insisting that everyone is Garnel. Still, I understand now where you’re coming from. I’m not going to link to Matzav because, frankly, I don’t want to read any more of the comments there. Maybe someone else could provide a link.

    Been there done that, (awkward as a name, no?) how is using an alias not polite? Nearly everyone on Matzav comments under an alias, and given the reaction I got using my real name would just be stupid. By quoting the pasuk, all I meant was that his article contained factual errors and we should try to “stay far away from falsehood.” I realize I could have made my intention more explicit, and it may have been misunderstood. Oh well.

  19. Anon: Sorry, you just give it away and make it really hard for me to believe that you're a skeptic (not that you explicitly said you are, but you hinted broadly at it. You types are sneaky that way, not lying outright but y'know...)

    Besides for the line I mentioned, you said "no matter if you think you are espousing the truth." That's a highly suspicious comment. And "sorry, my friend" is a dead giveaway.

    Oh, and there's no excuse for going anonymous. No one who expects to be taken seriously ever goes by anonymous *especially in the skeptisphere*, unless it's a highly controversial subject, which this isn't.

    You're full of it.

  20. >You’re not going to like this, but it also occurred to me that they’re insisting that everyone who disagreed with them was the same person is similar to your insisting that everyone is Garnel.

    Meh. I like to think that I put a lot of thought into my accusations against Garnel. I'll admit I've been wrong a few times, but I must say I've been right quite a few times as well. Anyway, without one or two people like me combing the interwebs, how is one to unmask all zeh frum trolls? Remember, most aren't as dumb as our friend Anon here, and give themselves names like (makeupname). Really devoted ones can make up 100 a day, no sweat. Hey, this troll patrol is serious work.


    >I’m not going to link to Matzav

    Damn, I'll never find it with Garnel, I mean Google. There goes my entertainment for tonight!


    A Fellow Victim of Frum Online A-Holes

  21. Also, Garnel came to my blog and harassed me there, as opposed to someone else's blog. Surely, one's personal blog is different than some other site.

    As much as I like to harass zeh frum trolls, I generally stay on my blog or other skeptic ones. Once in a blue moon, I'll venture onto a frum site, and tentatively open my mouth. Not that you shouldn't troll wherever you want, but I just don't have the emotional or physical strength to spend time on frum sites. Not to mention I could do without the sharp decline in IQ per minute spent...


  22. Yeah, the comparison between the Matzav commenters and you/Garnel is inexact at best. Still, your Garnel obsession is the first thing that popped into my head when I saw the accusation that all of the dissenting commenters were the same person, and I figured I'd mention it.

  23. >Still, your Garnel obsession is the first thing that popped into my head when I saw the accusation that all of the dissenting commenters were the same person

    Yeah, but I don't go around calling people like Brooklyn Wolf "Garnel." Only really creepy trolls on my blog with generic names fit the bill.

  24. I'll admit Jewish Gadfly was one of my bigger mistakes. He is a wonderful skeptic, and I wrongly accused him of being Garnel (I should really apologize for it).

    However, I have been 100% accurate on some of my other hunches. "Dr. Mike" was one. And once I called out a guy who started a blog called "Peace in the holy land." I still don't know for sure if I was right, but the enterprise was *extremely* shady, and he pretty much closed down after my posts on him. So even if he wasn't Garnel, he certainly wasn't kosher. Those are just a few examples. And while I understand it can be a little silly to accuse so many people of being Garnel, I prefer to err on the side of aggression here. And garnel has never seriously denied using a million names. I'd rather look like an idiot than make life easy for trolls, especially as we both know they can be more than a little hurtful.

  25. OTD, I wasn't going to say anything, but I appreciate you saying that. Thanks.

  26. Okay, I found the post.

    Yes, some of the frum commenters were really awful and sounded a lot angrier than everyone they claim is angry. (Also, the moderator appeared to have edited out some of your comments regarding Sinai.) Mandy pwned it with this comment: "I get it, I get it. Ahavas Yisroel is only for those with whom you agree or in the alternative, for cop-killers on death row."

  27. I'm going to tentatively disagree with Mitchell et. al. If Matzav doesn't want a certain class of comments they can either moderate them out or simply politely say somewhere "these are understood norms. The following classes of arguments are not desired here."