Monday, June 27, 2016

Questions, not Excuses

This is the opening to the first chapter in my book. Comments/corrections/suggestions are welcome.

                Moshe sat in the waiting room, a little nervous, a little hopeful. In many ways, he was a typical yeshiva bochur. He had spent a couple of years leaning full-time after high school and was now learning part of the day and in college in the evenings. He dressed the same as the other bochrim in his yeshiva, listened to the same frum music that they did, went to the same events, and kept all of the mitzvos. Yet, in one important way, Moshe was different.
                His fellow students had no problems with their emunah, but Moshe was plagued by questions. He wanted to know the reasons for mitzvos. To understand how many things accepted by the community, like segulos, worked. To square strange statements about the world in tanach and the gemara with how he knew the world to work. As a teenager, the principal of his high school had called Moshe into his office one day and told him that, while Yiddishkeit allowed one to ask questions, even encouraged it, he should stop asking his questions in class. These questions didn't occur to the other bochurim, and why should their emunah chas v'sholom be weakened by Moishe's questions?
                Moshe was a good kid, and he did as the principal asked, but the questions didn't go away. If anything, the more he learned about the world, the stronger they became. Moshe sought out and read kiruv books that promised to answer questions of emunah and prove the Yiddishkeit was correct. They were disappointing. Every now and then Moshe would come across something that seemed convincing, that seemed like it could be the idea on which he could rebuild his faith. Within a week or two, as he thought about the exciting new concept, he would sadly realize it was full of holes. It relied on logical errors, or didn't match up with real-world experiences, or contradicted other things Moshe had learned in yeshiva.
                Moishe's interest in his religion blossomed into an interest in the history of Judaism, in comparative religion, in philosophy and mythology and biblical scholarship. The more he read, the less tenable yiddishkeit seemed, until one day Moshe realized that he couldn't avoid the obvious conclusion. Judaism wasn't true, and there probably wasn't a God. The realization upset him, and he felt a deep sense of loss, but there it was. Still, he thought to himself, maybe this is all just the yetzer hara, trying to convince me not to keep the mitzvos. He continued to keep the mitvos as meticulously as he always had.
                 A year went by. Keeping the mitzvos while not believing in Judaism in order to make sure it wasn't the yetzer hara planting thoughts in his head was starting to feel faintly ridiculous. It would soon be time for Moshe to start dating, but how could he in good conscience go out with Bais Yaakov girls when he didn't believe? In a last-ditch effort to regain his emunah, he had a friend put him in touch with a kiruv worker. The rabbi came highly recommended, and Moshe met with him a few times to discuss his issues with Yidishkeit. The rabbi was friendly and seemed genuinely concerned about Moishe, but like the kiruv books, his answers were disappointing. A week ago the rabbi had called Moshe with exciting news. He had gotten Moshe an appointment with a big rav, a real talmid chocham who would be able to answer Moishe's questions, help him see that Torah and Yiddishkeit were the emes and regain his emunah.
                At last Moshe was ushered into the rav's presence. The rav asked Moshe why he had come, and Moshe explained that he had questions of emunah that bothered him, and gave a few examples. The rav listened, then gave Moshe a bracha that his emunah shelaima should return.
                "I was hoping that you could answer some of my questions." Moshe said.
                The rav quoted the Brisker Rav and said "I answer questions not excuses." He explained, "You have decided to be porek ol, since you did not control your yetzer haras, and you found an excuse that you had 'questions', and I don't answer excuses!"
                The rav gave Moshe another beracha that he would merit teshuva shelema, and Moshe was ushered back to the waiting room.

                The above is a composite story, combining my experiences and those I have read or been told by others who have had the misfortune to be frum and skeptical. Elements of it would be recognized by anyone who has been in yeshiva and questioned ikkarei emunah. I thought about religion while none of my fellow students did, I was told by my high school principal to stop asking questions, I wanted to understand how Judaism works and how religious ideas square with the world I experience, and I found that the more I learned about the world, about history, theology, philosophy, and science, the less tenable Yiddishkeit seemed. I have read accounts by people who continued to keep the mitzvos for years after losing their faith because they were worried that their questions might be the yetzer hara trying to fool them into giving up the mitzvos.[1] Many people have related the sadness and sense of loss they felt when they realized that Judaism wasn't true and there probably wasn't a God. And many people have talked about how maddening it was after years of searching for answers to have their sincere questions dismissed as excuses to be porek ol. The conversation between Moshe and the rav is lifted nearly verbatim from an account an encounter between three questioning bochurim and Rav Chaim Kanievsky.[2]
                Many frum people believe that Judaism is obviously correct. After all, at the midrash[3] tells us that Avraham Avinu figured out that Hashem was the master of the Universe when he was only three years old! It's obvious even to a child that Hashem runs the world. Yet if it's so obvious, how could anyone go off the derech? How could anyone disbelieve when the truth is staring him in the face? Chazal answer,[4] "lo uvdo avodas kochavim ela l'hatir lahem arayos," "[people] don't worship idols except to permit to themselves sexual licentiousness." The person wants to do aveiros, but he can't because he knows Hashem will punish him. So he comes up with "questions" that allow him to convince himself that Hashem won't punish him after all, and he can do whatever he wants.
                The thesis of this book is that those who reject the tenets of Orthodox Judaism are not hedonistic cretins looking for excuses to throw off the ol hatorah and wallow in their taivos. That it is not obvious that God exists and that Judaism is true. That there are serious questions that undermine Orthodoxy, Judaism, and belief in God. That it is reasonable to doubt Judaism's tenets and act on those doubts. That doing so is more reasonable than clinging to the belief that the tenets of Orthodox Judaism are obviously true.

[1] See for one example
[2] Bruer, P. (10/21/2010). Al teirutzim ani lo onah teshuvos. HaShavua Retrieved from: 6/5/16
[3] Sepher Ha-Yashar 9:13-19 This is a polemic against idolatry rather than an argument for God's existence or the truth of Judaism.
[4] Sanhedrin 63b

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Blinded by Belief

In 1835 Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, purchased two Egyptian mummies. Inside the caskets he found fragments of papyri with Egyptian writing. He claimed that these were written by Avraham and Yosef, and produced a supposed translation of the papyri titled "The Book of Abraham." This work is considered part of Mormon scripture and informs Mormon doctrine. In 1966 the papyri were found in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When translated by Egyptologists, they proved to be standard funerary documents.[i]

When I read about the above, my first thought was, "I bet Mormons claim that Joseph Smith wasn't really translating the papyri, but that they were a means through which God revealed the Book of Abraham to him. That would solve the problem and is neatly unfalsifiable." I was right.

The official LDS website explains the discrepancy by saying, "The word translation typically assumes an expert knowledge of multiple languages. Joseph Smith claimed no expertise in any language.… The Lord did not require Joseph Smith to have knowledge of Egyptian. By the gift and power of God, Joseph received knowledge about the life and teachings of Abraham.… Joseph’s translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artifacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri." [ii] In other words, even though Joseph Smith claimed he was translating the papyri, he wasn't really translating them, but was instead receiving a revelation from God. Is there any question that this a contrivance to explain away the discrepancy between the Book of Abraham and what the papyri actually said?

This is an obvious and egregious example of people willfully ignoring the evidence against their religious beliefs, and I'm sure that any frum person would see it as such. Why then don't they see it in their own religion? In the Zohar, which uses Spanish idioms? In Tanach, which reads like ANE mythology? In many of the counterfactual beliefs held in various parts of the frum world about the age of the universe, the development of life, or the evolution of Judaism? Because when people are invested in a system of thought, explanations like the one the Mormons offer seem reasonable. They take it for granted that the Book of Abraham is true, and all that needs to be explained is how to square that with the expert's translation of the documents it's supposed to be based on. Divine revelation using the documents as a meditative focus explains all the evidence, can't be disproved, and maintains the truth of their belief. That anyone outside the system immediately sees through the explanation as an attempt to rescue an untenable belief is irrelevant. They have an explanation, and the believers can move on, their faith secure.

When evaluating the claims of our belief systems, it is imperative to try and step outside of them, as difficult as that is. It is only then that we can evaluate our beliefs as they are, instead of as props for the system we're comfortable with.

[i] Wright, L. (2013) Going Clear. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf
[ii] Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham. Retrieved from

Monday, June 20, 2016

Odds and Ends

I came across this quote from Aristotle the other day:
“The male is by nature superior and the female inferior and one rules and the other is ruled. This inequality is permanent because the woman’s deliberative faculty is without authority, like a child’s.”
When I wrote about Chazal's attitude towards women, I came up with the analogy of Chazal having seen women as children on my own. It seems I was right on the nose. This quote supports the idea that women really were seen as children in the ancient world. I tried to find the original source, but haven't been able to. If anyone were able to find where Aristotle wrote it, I would appreciate the citation.

I came across this in a lecture series on the philosophical positions of skeptical and theistic theologians:
The Fundamentalism Project, a University of Chicago research project that examined fundamentalism in different faiths, describes fundamentalism as,

"1. Fundamentalism involves a pure religious past based on a selective recovery of tradition as the basis for a present religious vision.
2. Central to fundamentalism is a struggle against secular modernity that is grounded in the belief that what is variously referred to as Secular Humanism or "the West" is a threat to religious identity. It is religiously imperative to resist this threat and conform to God's will.[i]"
Sound familiar?

Lastly, I've been working on the book I proposed. I have 99 pages of loosely-organized notes (which keeps growing), and I'm working on sorting them into an outline that I can turn into the book. I was wondering is anyone would be interested in lending a hand. I could use help in four areas:

1. Proofreading for spelling and grammar mistakes, for clarity, and for possible counter-arguments. I took a kiruv book apart once, and that is informing the way I'm writing. I want, as much as possible, to anticipate the responses of the frum reader and prevent a similar dissection of this book.

2. Research in  general sources. There are a lot of ideas rattling around in my head which would be a lot more authoritative if I could source them. I regret not making notes on all the books I've read over the years, but it's too late now, and Google only helps so much.

3. Research in traditional Jewish sources. I was never the greatest lamdan, and it's been a looong time since I opened a gemara.

4. Help with the norms and arguments of segments of the frum world I'm not familiar with. The book is necessarily written from my point of view, and so primarily addresses the Yeshivish community I grew up in, but I would like to touch on other hashkafos as well, especially those of the Chassidishe world.

While I daydream about the book being a success and finding fame and fortune, in reality I don't expect to make much, if anything off of it. The plan is to make it available for free online as a PDF and for purchase as a print version at slightly more than whatever the printing company charges to print it. Consequently, if anyone is interested in helping, it would be strictly as a volunteer.

If you are interested, please send me an email with name and the area(s)  you'd like to help with, and I'll get in touch with you as things come up I need information on.

[i] Roberts, T. (2009). Skeptics and Believers: Religious Debate in the Western Intellectual Tradition