Tuesday, September 27, 2011

God the Programmer

Yesterday as I was walking my daughter home from school, my mind wandered and I found myself thinking about the mabul. Specifically, about how unfair it was for Hashem to punish everyone with death. After all, I reasoned to myself, if the product is defective, it’s the fault of the designer! If a computer programmer wrote a program which failed to function properly, it wouldn’t be reasonable to blame the program. Obviously, it’s the programmer’s fault. He messed up somewhere in the code, and he needs to fix it, not yell at his computer.

Then I had an epiphany. Hashem IS a programmer. And the mabul wasn’t a punishment. It was God saving the bits of the program that worked properly and deleting the faulty code so that He could try to fix the program.

Unfortunately, God isn’t a very good programmer.

With this perspective, so much makes sense.

God created the Universe (the program): In the beginning, God created the program. And the page was empty, blankness was on the monitor, and God’s fingers were hovering over the keyboard. And God typed, “Let there be light” and there was light. God saw that the code for simulating light effects was good, and He separated the light effects from the shadow effects. God called the light program “day” and the shadow program “night.” By then it was evening, and He powered down His computer until the morning – this was the first day.

God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omni-benevolent (more or less): He knows everything about the program and can see all of the results of the program (but doesn’t quite know why it’s not working properly); He can change the program as He wishes (but He’s not a very good programmer, so his code often doesn’t do quite what He wants it to); and He wants the ultimate good for the program, that is, for it to work properly (but individual pieces of the program are unimportant in themselves). He cares about and investigates the behavior of each part of the program, and is constantly involved in adjusting it.

There is a wonderful theodicy: Bad things generally are a result of bugs in the program. The plane crashes because of a bug. The little girl emerges from the wreckage without a scratch because God was furiously coding to try to fix the bug.

Other gods are software pirates who try to take credit for the program. This understandably upsets God.

And so on…

Monday, September 19, 2011

Video Proves Afterlife!

Yeah, right. If only.

A few days ago one of my friends posted a link on Facebook to this video.

In the video Rabbi Mizrachi claims that he will provide scientific proof of the existence of the afterlife. Always hopeful, I watched it. I didn’t bother watching the rest of the series. After rambling a bit and citing Torah sources, R’ Mizrachi outlines his five scientific proofs for the afterlife. They are:

1) Out-of-body experiences
2) Séances
3) Reincarnation
4) Hypnotic regression causing people to speak in languages they don’t understand
5) Two people inhabiting one body, by which I assume he means split-personality disorder.

The list is laughable. Even his proof from the Torah that there is an afterlife is hardly conclusive. He says that the Torah forbids us to communicate with the dead. This, he claims, proves that it is possible to speak to the dead, which in turn proves that there must be some sort of afterlife.

Unfortunately for him, this is not necessarily so. Many things in the Torah are polemics against idolatry. Communicating with the dead was common practice in many idolatrous cults of the Ancient Near East. The prohibition is as likely meant to prevent Jewish people from engaging in this idolatrous practice of their neighbors (despite it having no efficacy) as it is meant to prevent actual communication with the dead.

I had never heard of R’ Mizrachi, and at first I figured he was just some local rav who had decided to give a hashkafa lecture and had it filmed. But no, it turns out that he has his own kiruv organization, with its own website with many lectures purporting to PROVE that Judaism is right scientifically and theologically.

What little I’ve seen of his lectures show that it’s not even worth debunking. I mean, going through it might be fun, and picking stuff like this apart is good for my ego, but there’s no real accomplishment in picking such low-hanging fruit. And yet, Rabbi Mizrachi’s bio claims that one of his videos was distributed to more than 200,000 people, he’s given 4,000 lectures, and his Facebook page has 56,000 friends and over 1,000,000 hits a month. In the tiny frum world, those are celebrity stats.

Bad science and terrible “proofs” from kiruv organizations is hardly news. Being confronted by something like this video, though, brings home just how bad it can be and highlights that sad state of popular Orthodox theology.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Country Music

I’ve started listening to music on the radio recently (over the last few months), and it’s been a new experience for me. As I wrote here, growing up I only listened to Jewish Music. Even when I started listening to non-Jewish music in my early twenties, it was mostly older songs. Recognizing the music I hear from too-loud car stereos, in stores, or even what was played during the 4th of July fireworks show is a strange new experience.

I mostly listen to country music, which I discovered that I liked way back when I was dating my wife and would put the radio on during the long drive from my house to hers. While there are a fair number of songs about pickup trucks (which I don’t own) and beer (which I don’t like), many songs are about family and living life. I identify with a lot of these songs in a way I never did with pasukim put to music.

For instance, there’s this song about a guy who takes his daughter fishing and talks about how he’s building memories with her. I often think about how my kids will remember their childhoods, and me, when they’re adults. Songs like this speak to me.

There’s this one, about a guy who works hard to support his family.

And this one, about a guy who’s applying for a job so he can take care of his kids.

There are songs about being a parent, like this one about a woman dealing with her daughters being typical teenagers, and which makes me think about what my two daughters will be like in a few years.

And songs about missing family who have passed away, like this one about a guy who misses his grandfather and wishes he could take his family on a day trip to Heaven so his kids could meet their great-grandfather.

There are also the raunchy songs my high-school rabbeim polemicized against, like this one, which is actually rather clever.

And this one, which of all songs is the one that my four-year-old daughter leant most of the lyrics to.

There are songs about small-town American culture, or at least the idealized version of it, which are remarkably similar to aspects of idealized frum culture. Like this song about a guy who goes out of his way to buy American to support ”his” people, just as many frum people will shop at frum businesses to help support their owners.

There are songs about 9/11 which are far better than the single sappy song I can think of that came out of the frum music industry.

There’s this one, which has a triumphant ring.

And then there’s this one, which can break your heart. My oldest is four, about the same age the girl in the song would have been in 2001. I heard it on the radio once, and I can’t bring myself to listen to it again. I’m not an overly sentimental guy, but anything to do with kids always gets to me. Especially now, when I have kids of my own. This song made me cry, something that no repetitive Hebrew song has ever done, however beautiful its melody may have been.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Babylonian names = Jewish insight?!

Babylonian Calendar

It’s that time of year again. It’s Ellul, and I’ve been bombarded with vertlach that darshan the name of the month to produce cute riffs on the theme of teshuva and closeness to Hashem. This is despite the undisputed (pagan) Babylonian origin of the names of the months of the Jewish calendar, and that most of the d’vrei torahs’ wordplays only work in Hebrew.

Now, I would have no complaints if these divrei torah were presented as clever mnemonic devices or inspirational quips meant merely to remind us of the significance of the month. Instead, they are presented with the unstated assumption that the intrinsic flavor of the time of year is reflected in the name of the month.

The last time I mentioned this phenomenon, I did a Google search for “Ellul” and found a Mesopotamian god named Enlil/Elil, whose name I assumed was the origin of “Ellul.” Since then I’ve learned a bit more about mythology and have done a bit more research into month-names, and it turns out I was wrong.

The names of the months on the Jewish calendar come from the Babylonian names by way of Akkadian. Akkadian was the common language of the Ancient Near East, and Babylonian was actually a variant of Akkadian. Akkadian was used in the ANE for some two thousand years, until it was replaced as the common language by Aramaic with the rise of the Persian Empire about three thousand years ago.

“Ellul” was originally “Ululu” in Babylonian and “Elulu” in Akkadian. It comes from a root meaning “harvest” and also refers to the “mission” of the reigning deity of the month, Ishtar. Ishtar was the Babylonian fertility goddess, and shared a similar-sounding name and near-identical story and powers with the Egyptian goddess Isis and the Semitic Astarte. So, using "Ellul" as a the basis for vertlach is not quite as damning as creating divrei torah directly from the name of a Mesopotamian god, but certainly it is a word that has nothing to do with repentance and closeness to God. “Ellul” is at best a straightforward name for the time of year – “harvest time” – and is at worst a reference to the role the Babylonian fertility goddess was believed to play in the annual agrarian cycle.

The other month names have similar origins:

Babylonian: Nisanu – First, refers both to the month as the first month of the year and to the presiding god, Bel.

The first week of this month was the Babylonian New Year’s celebration. This is speculation on my part, but it seems likely that this is where the idea of Nissan as the beginning of the year comes from. Pre-Babylonian exile, the months of the Jewish year were numbered rather than named, and the numbering started in the spring. Yet now Nissan is called the new year for the months, and Tishrei in the new year for the year. In the Babylonian calendar, Nissan is the beginning of the year and of the first half-year, and Tishrei was that beginning of the second half-year. That these months are both considered new years in the Jewish calendar is too much of a coincidence.

Bel, known as Baal in Israel, is not really a name but a title. It means “lord” and refers to Marduk, first amongst the gods in the Babylonian, and later Persian, pantheon. Bel Marduk has the distinction of being both the most vilified god in tanach and of being Mordechai HaTzadik’s namesake.

Babylonian: Āru / Ayaru - Bull or Herd, Prosperity. Presided over by Ea, the Babylonian name for the (earlier) Sumerian god Enki, the god of life. Originally the god of water, Enki is often depicted with the Tigris and Euphrates rivers flowing from his shoulders.

Babylonian: Simanu - Brick-making. Presided over by Sin, the god of the moon, after the conflation of the Semitic god Sin with the Sumerian god Nanna. Interestingly, the main centers of Sin worship were Ur and Haran, both cities which figure prominently in Avraham’s story: the first as his birthplace and the second as his long-time adopted home.

Babylonian: Dumuzu – Babylonian name of the god known in Hebrew as Tammuz. The only month to share its name with a god. Originally the god of vegetation and later of the sun, Tammuz must spend six months a year in the underworld, a mythical explanation for winter. According to the myth, his wife, Inanna, descended to the underworld to visit her sister, Ereshkigal. Once there, Inanna sat on her sister’s throne, and immediately became a corpse. To return to the world of the living, Inanna had to find someone to take her place in the underworld. Tammuz agreed to exchange himself for her, but had second thoughts and was hidden by his sister, Geshtinana. Demons were sent to find him and drag him to the underworld. Eventually an arrangement was agreed to where Tammuz and Geshtinana each spend six months in the underworld.

The month of Tammuz, during which the summer solstice fell and the days began to get shorter, marked Tammuz’s annual death and descent to the underworld. It was a time of ritualistic mourning in the ANE. Tammuz’s annual funeral was a week-long Babylonian holiday.

According to Chazal, the name Tammuz was kept despite being the name of a pagan god deliberately to remind us of the bad things that happen as a result of avoda zara – as attested to by the breach of Yerushalayim’s walls on the 9th of Tammuz, the disruption of the avoda in the Beis HaMikdash on the 17th, and the annual “three weeks” period, starting on sheva assur b’Tammuz, during which we observe mourning rituals and there is supposedly an increased danger of bad things happening.

Is it a coincidence, though, that there was a widespread tradition of mourning during Tammuz, and that the Jewish people just happen to have their own, independent reason for mourning at the exact same time? Or is it more likely that we today are observing during sheva assur b’Tammuz and the three weeks the last vestiges of the ancient mourning rites for the annual death of Tammuz?

Babylonian: Abu – Fire.

Discussed above.

Babylonian: Tashritu – Beginning. The beginning of the second half-year of the Babylonian calendar. Presided over by Shamash, the Mesopotamian god of the sun and the likely origin of the Hebrew word “shemesh.”

Babylonian: Arachsamna - Eighth month. Presided over by Marduk, here going by his name rather than his title.

Babylonian: Kislimu (meaning uncertain). Presided over by Nergal, a god of the sun as it appears during specific times of day and of the year.

Babylonian: Tebetu – Violent rain. Presided over by Papsukkal, the messenger god.

Babylonian: Shabatu – Rain.

Babylonian: Adaru – Threshing time. Presided over by Erra, an Akkadian plague god, also responsible for political confusion (perhaps like that found in the Purim story?).