Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Book Review: “A Conversation on the Way”

“A Conversation on the Way” is, according to the author, meant to introduce frum people to many of the problems in reconciling religion, particularly Orthodox Judaism, with modern science and scholarship. It’s a sort of anti-kiruv book. It doesn’t evangelize for the abandonment of religion, rather, it shows how kiruv arguments fall short and exposes the reader to a wealth of information that makes a traditional fundamentalist Orthodox understanding of Judaism untenable. The book touches on many different topics relating to conflicts between Torah and science/history. It doesn’t go into great detail on any subject, but it provides enough information to whet the appetite of anyone who might find these subjects interesting.

The book is framed as a conversation between two friends on their way to shul Shabbos morning. It captures the feel of a conversation very well. It’s very informal and bounces from topic to topic, touching on each briefly before the conversation drifts to a new subject. Once you get past the introduction, the book is all dialogue, and it’s a little dizzying to read. There’s no “… said,” just a hundred and seventy pages of text inside quotes. It’s easy to lose track of which of the two characters is speaking.

On the one hand, the conversational frame is a good way to touch on a lot of topics without breaking the book up with dozens of headings and sub-headings. On the other hand, it can get a bit confusing. Topics are brought up and abandoned in no particular order, and the topic of conversation often changes while still in the middle of a subject, with a promise to get back to it later. At the end of the book, some of these aborted topics are briefly addressed, but this is not at all a book for quick reference.

Character 1, the author’s avatar in the book, is full of energy, lecturing, discussing, almost bouncing up and down in his eagerness to talk about his favorite subjects. Character 2, who takes the traditional stance on most subjects, while he does occasionally display some personality when bantering with the author character, and every now and then is allowed to score a point for the religious side of the debate, is more of a straight man. He exists to interject at the appropriate points to give the impression of dialogue.  Much of the book is not so much a conversation as it’s conversationally-toned exposition.

Early in the book, Character 2 asserts that, “Life exists because God made it,” to which 1 responds, “I believe that too, but I also believe that God made a natural functioning universe without hocus-pocus, and embedded specific non-God-intervening explanations for everything.” While I share much of the worldview of character 1, I wonder if 2’s isn’t more coherent. He believes that God is the explanation, and it ends there. 1 believes in God despite being certain that there is no proof for His existence – if there are “non-God-intervening explanations for everything” that leaves no room for proof of God. So why does 1 still believe? (From the ending, it seems the answer is, because he wants to.)

The book touches on Creationist arguments, making the point that kiruv books often present one side of an argument as if it’s the last word on the subject. It also touches on the Oomphalous hypothesis, Free Will, God and morality, discusses “evolution is just a theory” and what evolution is actually about, a very little bit of Biblical Criticism, obliquely references the Problem of Evil, and points out that the Chumash never mentions an afterlife. It’s a good, light-read introduction to these topics (and a few more). People who’ve been hanging around the blogosphere for a while won’t find anything new, but it’s a good starting point for someone who doesn’t know much about science/Torah issues and is looking to learn what he should be looking to learn.

As far as I can tell, the book is self-published, and it suffers from the lack of a professional proofreader. There are a number of typos, which I found jarring in a printed work, and several places where the names of historical and contemporary figures are wrong, e.g., Moses Mendelssohn is credited as the author of the Zohar instead of Moses DeLeon.

I think the audience for this book would be a MO or liberal yeshivish guy who’s sitting on the fence. Those a bit further to the right would reject the book outright, even if they were inclined to ask the uncomfortable questions, because of its many pop-culture references, occasional minor expletives, and insufficient reverence towards rabbonim.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Out of the Mouths of Babes…

My daughter came home from school on Friday with the projects she had made for Rosh Hashana: an apple-shaped honey dish and a “machzor,” a booklet of pictures she had colored showing different things done on Rosh Hashana. Friday night at the table my wife was asking her about what she had learned in school, and asked why people eat carrots on Rosh Hashana. My daughter answered, “Because that’s what it says in my machzor!”

That’s one thing coming from a five year old, but there are far too many adults would give what amounts to the same answer.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Table Manners

“Never put your knife in your mouth, as not only is this bad manners, but the knife may be sharp.”
- PAUL'S Guide to Manners

This sheitel head looks like it's seen a lot of pins
I’ve been reading an interesting book, The Evolution of Useful Things, that describes how many every-day items developed. For instance, T-pins, ubiquitous in frum households for holding sheitels to (creepy) Styrofoam heads (do those heads really need to have faces?) were invented to replace typical straight-pins for holding papers together in an era before the paper clip became popular.  A nineteenth century catalog advertised T-pins, “used primarily in brokerage houses for securities,” as having “handles which speed pick-up, insertion, and withdrawal, will not slip through the paper.”

What prompted this post was the book's description of the evolution of the table knife. My parents were hardly sticklers for table manners, yet as a kid I was told half-jokingly not to put my knife in my mouth because it is bad manners, and more seriously not to because I might hurt myself. So I was surprised to learn that this bit of advice is fairly recent.

I knew that in the distant past, forks had been rare or non-existent, and people ate with their belt knives, an all-purpose tool that might be used in the morning for whittling a stick, in the afternoon for skinning game, and in the evening for cutting up dinner, spearing the pieces, and placing them in the mouth. What I had not known is that even when forks became common at the dinner table, knives were still used to convey food to the mouth.

17th century table setting
As forks became more popular, table knives lost their sharp point, whose function of spearing pieces of food was replaced by the fork’s tines. Early forks, though, had their own shortcomings. They often had two or three straight, narrow tines and were poor tools for picking up loose foods – the example most often given is peas. To compensate, flatware makers broadened the now-blunt tip of the table knife so that it could be used to pile the peas upon, and curved it so that only a small motion of the wrist was required to bring the end of the knife to the mouth.

Clearly, then, the admonition  to not put my knife in my mouth was not based on anything “real.” In the recent past, as little as a couple of hundred years ago, knives had actually been designed to make putting them into the mouth easier. Nor does the worry about cutting oneself really carry any weight. Table knives today are not really sharp at all, and rely on a serrated edge to saw through food. When knives were the only utensil, and routinely put into the mouth, they were sharp enough to be used as a woodworking tool. Yet history doesn’t record generations of people constantly bleeding from cuts in their mouths.  

The real reason we are not supposed to put knives in our mouths is that when the modern version of the fork finally developed in the early nineteenth century, with four closely-spaced tines bent in a scoop shape that could easily handle all sorts of foods, only “old-fashioned” people continued to use their knives to pick up food. Those who were more “with it” relegated the knife to its current function of cutting food into pieces to be picked up by the fork.

Fast forward two hundred years to today, and the change in tableware fashions has been forgotten by society at large. All that remains is a prejudice against those who use their knives to carry food to their mouths, justified by appeals to etiquette and safety.

As Emily Post, the famous early 20th century writer on and arbiter of etiquette once wrote, “etiquette is nothing more than tradition.” The story of the table knife’s development makes me wonder, how many things do we do in the name of “tradition,” that really recent changes to social custom, bolstered by post-hoc reasons that, upon examination,  are flatly contradicted by reality?

[A lot. Everything from the invention Halitosis (patholigizing bad breath) by Listerine to putting a hechsher on bleach.]

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Baptist Chareidim

I came across a blog called “Stuff Fundies Like,” a Baptist Fundamentalist analog of the blogs of the Jewish-skeptisphere. As always, I was struck by the similarities between fundamentalist versions of religions. Not so much in the post I was reading (Top 10 Things Fundies Expect People To Say), but in the comments:

“I’m so glad you taught me the importance of swimming in a shirt and pants. It makes swimming so much easier!”

“Thank you for suddenly opening my eyes to the great depravity inherent in shoulders and knees.”

“Hi neighbor, I noticed that your wife never wears pants. Even when she is gardening. How can I be sure if I were to be hit by a bus today that I would go to heaven?”

“Thanks for letting me know that all men are lying in wait to sexually assault me at the first sign of skin. Even Pastor! I’m so glad I know now that their self-control is MY responsibility.”


“I noticed that your family never plays in the yard on Sunday. What must I do to be saved?”

Many yeshivish/chassidish people consider playing ball on Shabbos to be “not Shabbosdick.”

“Are you sure the standards in this church are strict enough? Shouldn’t they be stricter? I need more rules!”


“I was going to get saved but then I saw you leaving the movie theater with your family. Now I’ve changed my mind and it is all your fault.”

I was told by my rabbeim that we have a responsibility as yeshiva bochurim to act in a certain way, because people would judge Yiddishkeit by our actions.

“You graduated from Fundy U? With an unaccredited theology degree? That’s enough for me, you’re hired!”

Getting a job after beis medrash/Kollel.

“I was SO IMPRESSED by the way you bowed your head for so long in prayer before you ate your meal at the restaurant and how you left that tract”

Bentching, Breslovers distributing their pamphlets.

“After seeing your book burning the other night at the church, I’ve realized that I need to be more totally surrendered to your cause and remove all my “idols” from my home like my tv, dvd player, and xbox.”

Wasn’t some rav burning a dumpster full of TVs a few months ago?

“Thank you for your teaching on Homosexuality. I will no longer have any sympathy for Gays”

“You never drink, go to concerts, movies or sports events, watch television, or do anything fun? Tell me how to get saved so I can have such a fulfilling happy life!”

“Pastor: I am going to be retiring soon and would like you to consider hiring my nephew to take over the pastorate when I am gone.

He was a youth pastor in Connecticut and then replaced his father as pastor at a church in California (after his father was caught in adultery), so he brings in a lot of varied experience. My nephew has apologized for molesting the youths and for sleeping with several married women and has put all this behind him.”

How many roshei yeshiva inherit their positions? To say nothing of Rebbes. And the Agudah’s current stance on molestation.

“You must have the truth since you get so passionate in defending your faith when people ask you difficult questions. I don’t blame you for not answering them, and rebuking those who question you.”

How dare you ask such questions, you apikores?! There are no questions, only answers!

“-We’re strangers to each other, but I noticed that you and your sons are wearing slacks and collared shirts, while your wife and daughters are wearing ankle-length skirts. Clearly you must have the answers to all that pertains to life and godliness.

-I noticed that you refuse to put anything else on top of your Bible. What must I do to be saved?

-I was looking at your military-style hair cut and your fifties style clothing, and I realized that I could read the gospel all over you, even though I have never been in a church or heard of Jesus before.”

Dressing strangely is religiously virtuous, not putting anything on top of seforim.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Pathologizing Porn

Yesterday Frum Satire posted a link to an Aish article titled “X-Rated” which decries the evils of porn and gives advice for avoiding temptation. Unlike most such articles these days, it doesn’t immediately launch into a tirade against the internet. The article starts with the author looking through porn magazines at a local store as a kid, and only towards the middle of the article does the internet come up. What it does do is something that I’ve been seeing more and more of over the past few years. It claims that looking at porn – and by implication, masturbation in general – is pathological.

The article treats porn as an addiction, and the comments on the article take it even further. Commenters talk about porn and masturbation in the same terms as substance abuse, discussing how long they’ve been “clean” and groups and therapies they’ve used. I have two issues with the characterization of masturbation as a pathology.

The first is simply that it isn’t true. Sex addiction as a disorder is itself controversial within the mental health community. It has never been included in the DSM, the official manual of disorders published by the American Psychological Association. While there is a sizable contingent of mental health professionals who think that sex addiction is a real pathology, looking at porn and masturbating do not by themselves mean that someone has an addiction. Frequent repetition of a pleasurable activity does not constitute an addiction, especially one for which there is an innate biological drive. Are we all addicted to food? After all, most of us eat three meals a day plus between-meal snacks.

The use of the word “addiction” in the Aish article and other similar articles is a common, frustrating phenomenon where people attach their own definition to a word, then use that word to make their point. “Addiction” has a real meaning. The following is a proposed diagnostic criteria for sexual addiction:

A maladaptive pattern of behavior, leading to clinically significant impairment or distress, as manifested by three (or more) of the following, occurring at any time in the same 12-month period:

1. tolerance, as defined by either of the following:
          1. a need for markedly increased amount or intensity of the behavior to achieve the desired effect
          2. markedly diminished effect with continued involvement in the behavior at the same level or intensity 2. withdrawal, as manifested by either of the following:
          1. characteristic psycho-physiological withdrawal syndrome of physiologically described changes and/or psychologically described changes upon discontinuation of the behavior
          2. the same (or a closely related) behavior is engaged in to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms
3. the behavior is often engaged in over a longer period, in greater quantity, or at a higher intensity than was intended
4. there is a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control the behavior
5. a great deal of time spent in activities necessary to prepare for the behavior, to engage in the behavior, or to recover from its effects
6. important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of the behavior
7. the behavior continues despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by the behavior.

Of these, the only ones that are applicable to the writer of the article (based on what he relates in the article) are 4 and 7. He therefore doesn’t meet the diagnostic criteria for sexual addiction. Other proposed criteria I’ve seen are substantively the same as the above, and he would similarly fail to meet the criteria for diagnosis.

Regarding 4,, I think that, given that sex is a biological drive like eating and not a superfluous activity like drug use or gambling, that trying to cut sexual gratification down to near-zero as the article author does is unrealistic. Much like someone attempting to fast indefinitely will very quickly succumb to hunger, so too someone who is trying to so severely limit his sexual satisfaction will inevitably succumb to temptation. This will then be interpreted as a failure to control the behavior, even though he may have been successful had he set more realistic goals.

Regarding 7, there is no doubt that viewing porn and masturbation causes psychological distress to people who think these things are evil. And engaging in behaviors that cause distress is maladaptive. BUT there are two ways to alleviate the distress. The first is to change the behavior. The second is to change the thought patterns that cause one to see the behavior as a source of distress. The behavior as described by the article author is harmless. The greatest harm was the reaction its revelation provoked from his wife. The very fact that she was blindsided shows that he was not spending an inordinate amount of time on the activity, nor was it interfering with his other activities and responsibilities. If the author and his wife were convinced that masturbation is not evil, then the psychological distress would disappear.

The second issue I have with the depiction of masturbation as a pathology is, I think, more interesting than the mischaracterization of what is and isn’t an addiction. I was wondering, why is porn and masturbation being described as a disorder? Isn’t it enough that it’s an aveirah? After all, we don’t find anyone writing articles pathologizing chillul Shabbos. And I had a startling realization: no, it’s not enough! Pathologizing porn does all sorts of useful things.

It gives people a concrete reason to invest time, money, and effort into refraining from masturbation. There are many things that are aveiros, and which people work on. Lashon hara, for example, has become a popular thing to work at avoiding. But we don’t see the same level of investment from individuals to keep themselves from speaking lashion hara. Were someone to popularize gossip as a pathology, I bet we would see people agonizing over it, buying software, attending therapy groups, etc.

It also gives people a way to feel better about themselves. One commenter on the article writes,

“Addiction is a disease. Would anyone be embarrassed because they have high blood pressure or diabetes? It is not a weakness of character and will power has nothing to do with it.”

Viewing porn and masturbating are now not sins and moral failings, but a disorder to be treated.

In the same vein, one can be a good upstanding member of the frum community despite viewing porn because, as an addiction, he can’t help it. He isn’t a rasha, like the person who is deliberately mechalel Shabbos. He’s a victim of a pathology, someone to be pitied and helped, not someone to be vilified and cast out. This may be the most important thing that pathologizing porn does. As the joke goes, pollsters went around asking men if they viewed porn. The results of the poll showed that 80% of men admit to watching porn, and 20% of men are liars. If everyone who watched porn was vilified as a rasha and kicked out of Orthodoxy, there’d be no one left.

Sunday, March 4, 2012


I recently finished watching Ken Burn’s latest documentary, “Prohibition.” Like all of his movies, it was engaging, discussing the subject mainly through the lives of people who lived through it, with occasional background filled in by the narrator.

In the mid-1800s drunkenness was a real problem in the US. America was internationally renowned as a nation of drunkards. The working class especially were prone to spend their evenings in one of the brewery or distillery owned saloons, drinking away their paychecks and coming home drunk to their families.

Groups such as the Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League were formed to combat the widespread drunkenness. They decried the plight of working-class families, left with no money to buy food and drunk, often abusive fathers and husbands. They blamed the brewery companies and their saloons, and pushed for legislation to limit and/or ban the sale of alcohol. The Prohibitionist movement steadily gained popularity, and laws were passed by local, then State governments. In 1920, after decades of lobbying, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was passed limiting the sale and ownership of alcohol. The legislation designed to enforce the amendment, the Volstead Act, outlawed anything containing one half of one percent or more of alcohol.

Exceptions were made for alcohol used for medicinal or religious purposes. In the first year of Prohibition, orders for sacramental wine from the Catholic Church quadrupled. Adult Jews were each allowed a certain amount of wine per week, and Jewish congregations that in 1920 had forty families saw their membership swell to over eight hundred by 1921. Doctors wrote millions or prescriptions for whisky and liquor.

Those who couldn’t get alcohol legally got it illegally. Shipments poured in over the Canadian and Mexican borders, and stills were set up in basements, barns, and caves all over the country. Illegal alcohol dealers became known as “bootleggers,” after their practice of keeping flasks of whiskey in their boots. Bootleggers sold to all levels of society, including some who made regular deliveries to Capitol Hill. Eventually bootlegging became organized, and people who would otherwise have been petty criminals became kingpins, overseeing huge distribution networks.

Illegal alcohol distribution resulted in low-quality, sometimes fatally dangerous drinks and in deadly gang warfare. On top of that, the government was no longer collecting the hefty tax it had previously gotten from alcohol. It was instead spending money trying to enforce Prohibition.

Unfortunately, no one wanted to pay for it. The federal government authorized only a few thousand Prohibition agents for the whole country, figuring that it would mostly be dealt with by local police. Local governments, for their part, figured that it was a federal law and therefore the responsibility of the federal government. The result was half-hearted enforcement of a law that was increasingly unpopular and ignored.

About ten years into Prohibition, groups were formed to lobby for its repeal. Oddly, they lobbied using the same anti-alcohol arguments that groups like the Anti-Saloon League had been using. Except instead of decrying the saloons, they decried the speakeasys, the illegal bars that littered every major city. The speakeasys were even worse, they said, because unlike the saloons they were frequented by women and minors as well as men. By 1933 the Twenty-First Amendment was passed, ending Prohibition.

As I watched, I was struck by a number of things.

First, that Prohibition had been an important issue in American politics for about a century. American politicians’ positions on Prohibition could make or destroy their careers, and the country was divided between the “drys” (those in favor of Prohibition) and the “wets” (those against it). And it wasn’t as if there was nothing more important going on. Campaigning for Prohibition started not long before the Civil War, and Prohibition ended during the Great Depression. Yet today Prohibition is not at all part of the American consciousness. It’s a few paragraphs in history textbooks.

Second, the parallels between the attempt to control alcoholism by criminalizing alcohol and the current war on drugs are obvious. It didn’t work then, why would anyone think it would work now? The only difference I can see is that drug use is not generally culturally significant the way that drinking is. Most people are not accustomed to having heroin with their steak or going out for a joint with their friends after work. Still, the criminalization of owning and distributing drugs is the same as it was for alcohol, the existence of a widespread black market, the laws creating the impetus for gang violence and organized crime, and the disproportionate number of people in prison for it are all the same.

Third, and most relevant to us in the Jblogosphere, is the complete ineffectiveness of blanket bans, especially when contrasted with regulation. Banning alcohol, while it did relieve some problems, was largely ineffective in combating alcoholism, and on the whole made things much worse. People who wouldn’t have gone to a saloon, such as the upper classes and women of all classes, went to speakeasies every night. Some people went just to spite the law. Prohibition created “a nation of scofflaws.” People who would normally never have broken the law ignored Prohibition because, after all, everyone did. Prohibition is also responsible for the existence of modern organized crime. The territories carved out by the various illegal distributers are the same ones used today by the mob.

Instead of attacking the brewery and distillery-owned saloons, teaching people how to drink responsibly, and developing programs to help alcoholics control their drinking, groups like the Anti-Saloon League pushed for the complete banning of alcohol, and eventually wrote the federal enforcement laws so that even today’s cough medicine would be illegal. It backfired spectacularly.

The elements of Orthodoxy that are prone to bans aren’t much given to studying history, even Jewish history. But it would serve them well to study Prohibition. Here was a movement with popular support, a movement that got a Constitutional Amendment passed, something that had to pass by a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate and then be ratified by three-quarters of the State legislatures. It had the authority of the federal government behind it, its own enforcement bureau, and in theory local law enforcement. And yet it failed utterly. About all it did was destroy the saloon system, and that could have been done without trying to force people to completely give up drinking. So what makes anyone think that top-down unpopular bans with no enforcement apparatus are going to be effective? Why not learn from Prohibition’s mistakes, and attack the real problems rather than trying to make them go away by banning the mediums through which they appear?

Monday, January 30, 2012

God the Locksmith

Last night I was installing a lock for a customer when I had help from God.

They had given me an old lock that they had taken off of their front door asked me to install it on the back door. The back door already had a (broken) lock, so it was just a matter of swapping the broken one for the good one. Normally it’s a quick job, but this lock was giving me trouble. I just couldn’t get it to work properly. Either the inside part worked, or the outside part, but they wouldn’t both work at the same time. After fiddling with it for a half hour, I was ready to give up. My hand was hurting from holding the two halves of the lock together around the edge of the door, and I had run out of ideas. The quote from Einstein that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” was running through my head.

I figured I would leave the working lock in the door to cover the holes and go tell them that it was beyond my skill level. As I tightened the screws that held the lock in place, I thought that a believer might be praying for God’s help at this point. How nice it would be if there was a God to reach down for me and miraculously make the lock work! Once the lock was in place, I decided to try it one more time, on the off chance that I’d finally gotten it right. Surprisingly, it worked!

So, did I get help from God? Or is it just a coincidence: as a result of the culture I grew up in and my penchant for theological musings, I happened to be thinking about God miraculously helping me just before I accidentally got the lock’s mechanism in the right configuration?

On the one hand, were someone to tell me that they base their religious beliefs on experiences like the one above, I would dismiss it as ridiculously weak. We are conditioned to appeal to God in nearly every situation. Inevitably some of the time things will happen to work out, and it will be attributed to God. On the other hand, an experience like this one is pretty powerful. I can see why a believer would see discounting it as perverse. Logic is one thing; direct experience is another. For someone who is used to seeing the Divine in the world (and who isn’t inclined to philosophically examine every event in their lives), it seems obvious that only a terribly misguided or evil person would ignore such direct experiential evidence of God.