Sunday, December 31, 2017

Hashkafa with a Heretic, Episode 2

I learned today that editing audio is time-consuming. There's less reading and more commentary in this episode. The episode covers the second half of the introduction to the Chovos HaLevavos, in which the author tells us that he wasn't sure that a humble man like himself was qualified to write a book on such lofty matters, and that if you disagree with anything he says, it's because you're lazy and stupid.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Aristotelian Avreichem?

From The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, from his discussion of Aristotle's Politics:

"The book… ends with a discussion of education. Education, of course, is only for children who are going to be citizens. Slaves may be taught useful arts, such as cooking, but these are no part of education. …Children should learn what is useful to them, but not vulgarizing. For instance, they should not be taught any skill that deforms the body, or that would enable them to earn money. …They must of course learn to read and write, in spite of the usefulness of these arts, but the purpose of education is virtue, not usefulness."

This sounds a lot like the kollel society of the yeshivish world. "Useful arts" are looked down on, working for money is vulgar, and the point of study is virtue, not for practical ends. Is this a coincidence, or do kollel communities represent a reflection of Aristotelian virtues, filtered through kisvei kodesh influenced by Aristotle's writings?

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Hashkafa with a Heretic, Episode 1

I'm trying something new. This post is the first in what I hope will become a series of audio episodes in which I (and possibly guests in the future) read through classic hashkafa seforim and share my thoughts. This project was inspired by the conversation Luzer and Ari (two of the stars of One of Us) had with a chassidish couple about a month ago. The woman they were talking with mentioned that she had also had questions as a teenager, and had learned through Chovos HeLevavos. She seemed to imply that it had answered her questions. I've never gone through Chovos HeLevavos straight through, so I figured, let's give it a try. I don't want to spend too much time on this project, so I'm doing this off-the-cuff, in one recording session straight through, half an hour to an hour a week.  Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Book Summary

I finally finished the first phase of writing my book! I've finished collecting and organizing my notes. The notes are culled from books, articles, and blog posts I've read, and from things I've written. I'm constantly finding new articles, and there's probably ten books on my current reading list that are relevant to the book I'm writing, but I have to stop collecting notes and start writing at some point. If I wait until I collect every piece of relevant writing, it will never end. The (semi-) final page count for my notes is 1,236 pages, among which is enough information to fill out all of the points I want to address in the book.

The following is a summary of the book as it is now laid out:

Apikorsis!: Reasonable Doubts Regarding Orthodox Judaism, Religion, and God.

Part One: Introduction
                Chapter 1: Why I Wrote This Book
The book is, first and foremost, an answer to the canard that people leave Orthodoxy because they are weak-willed hedonistic cretins who can't control their taivos and throw off the ol hatorah to excuse their wallowing in the fleshly pleasures of the world. It shows, at length, that there are kashas that aren't terutzim, that it is reasonable to conclude that Orthodoxy is incorrect, and that the many, many intellectual problems with frumkeit aren't just weak excuses.
Part Two: Thinking About Religion
                Chapter 2: Heresy
Truth and the idea of apikorsis are incompatible. If something is true, then it is, and if it's not, nothing is gained by making it a sin to think it. Apikorsis is only a useful idea if it's more important to hold ideologically correct ideas than it is to hold true ideas. Labeling dissenting ideas "heresy" is an attempt to protect beliefs through ignorance and to bully dissenters into silence.
                Chapter 3: Epistemology
Before we can determine if Orthodoxy is the truth, we have to establish how we know what the truth is. This chapter contrasts revealed religious epistemology, where there are pre-determined conclusions for which evidence is collected, and the method (ideally) used in science and academia, where evidence is collected first and conclusions drawn from what is found.
                Chapter 4: Critical thinking, Cognitive Biases, and Logical Fallacies
This chapter explores formal and informal logic, common mistakes in thinking, probability, and how to evaluate the truth of a claim.
Part Two: Orthodox Judaism
                Chapter 5: Orthodoxy's Authenticity
Orthodoxy claims that it is the only correct form of Judaism, essentially unchanged since the Torah was given on Har Sinia and uninfluenced by the surrounding culture. This chapter shows that every one of those claims is not true. There have been many forms of Judaism over the millennia, none of which can be said to be more legitimate than any other; many aspects of Orthodox Judaism would be unrecognizable to Jews of the past; and Judaism has always been and continues to be a syncretistic religion that shares ideas with the cultures in which it finds itself. Orthodoxy as it is now is the most similar of the modern forms of Judaism to what traditional Judaism was just before the modern era, but like the other streams of modern Rabbinic Judaism, it has its origins as a reaction to modernity.
                Chapter 6: Orthodoxy's Peculiarities
Orthodoxy has some idiosyncratic  ideas, both sociological and metaphysical. Among these are the parochialism of the frum world, in which it imagines it is better than the rest of society and that everyone else is obsessed with what frum people do; the slide-to-the-right and the escalating adoption of restrictive chumros; the doctrine of Daas Torah; and the strange idea that every generation is contemptible compared its predecessors.
                Chapter 7: The Women's Section
This chapter addresses the role of women in Orthodoxy. It includes issues such as women's secondary place in halacha and frum society, the misogyny that is woven through halacha, and the hypocritical objectification of women under the banner of tznius, which claims to change the focus from a woman's sexuality to her inner attributes while focusing exclusively on how well she hides her sexuality.
                Chapter 8: Arguments for Orthodoxy
My mother's uncle's cousin's stepdaughter had an amazing thing happen to her. Mamish a nes! That proves Orthodoxy is true! And surely all the great rabbonim of the past and the gedolim of today are smarter than we are, and they all believed! Shouldn't we rely on them, and accept that Orthodoxy is true? No, we shouldn't, because how smart someone is has little to do with how likely they are to be right. And people of every religion have miracle stories, most if not all the result of the way the person experiencing them frames the world and misunderstands probability. Nor do the positive attributes of the frum community or its demographic success give us good reason to think that frumkeit is the truth.
Part Three: Judaism
                Chapter 9: The Kuzari Proof
The Kuzari is often *the* proof people rely on to show that Judaism is true. This chapter lays out the premises of the Kuzari Proof and shows in detail why each one is mistaken. If any of the Kuzari's premises are wrong, then the Proof is invalid. As it turns out, every one of the premises is wrong, and the Kuzari is useless.
                Chapter 10: Factual Inaccuracies in Our Foundational Texts
This chapter discusses some of the inaccuracies in Tanach and the Talmud, from the incorrect order of Creation to the gemara's acceptance of spontaneous generation to mistaken ideas about  how babies are made, and much more. It also addresses the "explanations" given by traditionalists, from essentially claiming the world was created five minutes ago to shunting all the inconvenient claims off into an unknowable inaccessible "higher" reality where these mistakes are all really the truth.
                Chapter 11: Torah Shebichsav (TSBK) and Modern Biblical Scholarship
In the frum world, Biblical Criticism is usually dismissed as a silly attempt at undermining the truth of the Torah. If only the Bible Critics could read the meforshim, they would understand that Torah is emes! This chapter explains that academics can and do read the meforshim, and shows why the academics come to the conclusion that the Torah is a composite work. It discusses some of the many examples of Sumerian and Egyptian mythology in the Torah, and traces the development of Tanach from oral Israelite myths to the seventh-century BCE redaction of the Torah to the canonization of the Masoretic text.
                Chapter 12: The Development of Torah Shebaal Peh (TSBP)
I've heard Orthodox opinions on the divinity of TSBP that range from an insistence that every sefer ever written was given to Moshe on Har Sinai to that Moshe was only given a set of rules for interpreting the written Torah. This chapter traces the development of the concept of an authoritative Oral Tradition and the development of the tradition itself.
                Chapter 13: The Historical Development of Judaism in the Ancient World
No one really knows what the origins of the Jewish people are. This chapter begins with plausible speculation about Jewish origins in the Canaanite highlands, and moves from there onto firmer ground with a discussion of the development of Jewish monotheism and the impact of galus Bavel and Judaism's exposure to Zoroastrianism.
                Chapter 14: Proofs for Judaism
The most common proof for Judaism, after the Kuzari Proof, is the Argument from Jewish Survival. This chapter opens with a discussion of Jewish survival and the mundane, if unusual, conditions that allowed Jews to survive for millennia as a distinct people. This chapter also addresses other popular arguments for Judaism, such as Bible codes, the supposedly humanly impossible complexity of the Talmud, and, for a good dose of Jewish guilt, the Argument from Jewish Martyrs.
                Chapter 15: Question From Other Religions
This is perhaps the greatest argument against emunah peshutah. There are people all over the world who sincerely hold different religious beliefs. Often, the beliefs of different groups are mutually exclusive, which means that at least some of these people must be wrong. What are the odds that we happened to be born into the one religion that got it all right?
Part  Four: God
                Chapter 16: What is "God?"
Before we can discuss whether or not there's sufficient reason to think that God exists, we have to figure out what we mean by "God." This chapter discusses various conceptions of God, including polytheistic ideas, the God of Tanach, and currently acceptable frum ideas of what God is. It also discusses where the idea of God might have come from if He doesn't exist, and how we might go about determining if there's reason to think that He does.
                Chapter 17: Morality and the Problem of Evil, or The Most Common Argument Against God's      Existence
One of the common arguments for God is that if there is no God, there is no objective morality, and so God must exist. Of course, it could be that there is no God and there is no objective morality, however much we may want morality to be objective.  Nor can God have anything to do with an objective morality, something we've known since Plato. From the Argument from Morality, we move to the Problem of Evil, which asks how there can be evil in the world if God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent. Various theodicies are discussed which try to reconcile the existence of evil with a tri-omni God. One of the most common theodicy is that evil is necessary for us to have free will, and we look at whether we actually have free will in this deterministic universe of ours. Finally, we look at the empirical evidence. Was the world more moral in the past, when religion was taken for granted, and has morality been declining along with the decline of the centrality of religion in society, as religious demagogues often claim?
                Chapter 18: The Argument From Design, or The Most Common Argument For God's Existence
Rashi cribbed from Aquinas when he said that just as a house points to its builder, so the world points to a Creator. The complexity of the universe and of life, and the fine-tuning of the world to allow for life, is the most  common argument for the existence of God. This chapter explains why complexity doesn't in itself point to a Creator, and gives an overview of evolution as an alternative explanation for how the complexity of life arose.
                Chapter 19: Other Arguments for God
This chapter covers many of the arguments for God's existence, among them  the argument that the universe had to have a cause, and that cause is God; that there are many things we don't understand, and God is the explanation for those things; the argument that there are many immaterial concepts, like love, that we accept are real, and so we should also accept that God is real; and what for many people is the most convincing reason to believe in God, personal experiences that leave them sure that they know God is real.
Part Five: The Baby and the Bathwater
                Chapter 20: Pragmatic Religion
Even if God isn't real and religion isn't true, religion provides all sorts of benefits. And anyway, shouldn't we be frum, just in case it turns out that it's all true after all? No. The answer is no. It's true that religion does all sorts of useful things, but pretty much all of those things can be accomplished without religion, and religion has too many costs to justify pretending it's true in order to keep its benefits.
                Chapter 21: Going OTD
This chapter explores the various reasons why people leave the frum community, what they experience when leaving, and what the frum community tells itself about those who leave.
So after all this, is there anything that could make me believe in frumkeit again? And is there any value in being Jewish? I think the answer to first question is it's possible, but incredibly unlikely. The answer to the second question is that I can only speak for myself, but I don't think that being Jewish loses its value as an identity without the belief in Judaism. And I think that the overwhelming majority of Jewish people would agree with me.

These are some other ideas for a cover I've been playing with:

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Lies, Damn Lies, and the Mesorah

I finally read "Changing the Immutable." In it, Marc Shapiro chronicles many of the deliberate distortions that have been made to the opinions and writings of rabbinic authorities. Most of his focus in on the distortions of the Chareidi press in the recent past, but he also shows that this has been going on at least since the time of the gemara. Amoraim had no compunctions about lying about the source of their halachik assertions, and even more disturbingly, lying in general. Opinions were deliberately misattributed over the last two thousand years to give them more weight by putting them in the mouths of respected authorities. The true opinions of those same authorities were hidden and deleted from their writing when those opinions no longer fit with generally accepted thought and practice, when it was thought that those opinions would reflect badly on them, or when the publisher simply disagreed.

The conclusion one must draw from "Changing the Immutable" is, to be blunt, that the mesorah is garbage. Even if we say - and it is probably the case - that most rabbis most of the time were not lying, that we know some lie some of the time, and believe they are justified in doing so, calls everything they say into question. We have no way of knowing if any given thing a rabbi says is a "pious" lie. In addition to inevitable errors in transmission that would creep into any millennia-long tradition, the frequent intentional falsification by authorities through the ages means that nothing is reliable. The whole thing may well be lies built on lies built on mistakes built on lies - all the lies told for the sake of preserving the religious "truth."

It is telling that so many of the "Torah True" believe that their community's beliefs need to be protected by lies. It's almost as if in "Torah True," the name they've adopted for themselves, "True" is not modifying "Torah," in contrast to those heterodox movements they believe are portraying a false view of Judaism. Instead, "Torah" is modifying "True," in contrast to the usual meaning of "True" as something that accurately reflects reality.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Pascal's scary Wager

Pascal's wager is usually used as a way to scare people into being religious, because, "What if you're wrong?" Among its many, many problems is that it can be used in the same way to scare people into anything. For the same reasons it fails to be convincing for all those other things, it fails to be a convincing argument to believe in God and accept religion.

Pascal's Wager

Wager God exists
Wager God doesn't exist
You're right
Eternal reward
You're wrong
Suffering in Afterlife / missed out on eternal reward

Sex wager
The world will end unless you sleep with me.

Wager I'm telling the truth
Wager I'm lying
You're right
You save the world
You're wrong
World ends

So, your place or mine?

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Objectifying Women

I think that the frum world's claim that tznius decreases the objectification of women, refocusing attention from her body to her inner self, is a misunderstanding of how modesty mores affect objectification. Their model assumes that it's a straight line, like this:

I think it's really a "U" like this:

(Graphs are for illustration only. They are not based on anything other than my speculation.)

Monday, August 21, 2017

Book Cover

I'm thinking of using this as the cover for my book. Any thoughts?

I'm thinking of self-publishing through Amazon, and pricing it at $25. Does that seem reasonable?

I'm also considering, "Reasonable Doubts Regarding Orthodox Judaism, Religion, and God" as a subtitle. It's a bit less confrontational.

I have over nine hundred pages of notes so far. I have a few more books I want to read through for references, and about a hundred pages of assorted notes and links to articles to go through and organize, but the end of the gathering information phase is in sight. I figure another month or two.

I've discovered the main task when writing a book like this is sorting. First gathering and sorting all of the information into chapters and sub-sections, which I've been working on for the last year and a half. Then comes sorting the information in each subsection into points, filling in any gaps, sorting the information in each point into a coherent progression, and finally writing it up. So lots still to do.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Dropping onto Babies and Dropping Bombs

There is a discussion in the gemara (Sanhedrin 74a) about whether you are required to give up your life to avoid being a passive participant in a murder. If someone threatens to kill you unless you allow him to throw you onto a baby, thereby killing it, should you passively allow him to? Tosfos on the gemara says that just as we learn that you may not kill another person to save your own life because "his blood may be redder than yours," that is, his life might be more important than yours, so too you do not have to resist being a passive participant in a murder, because your life may be more important than his. You are not in a position to judge whose life is more important. Resisting would be a judgment that the baby's life is more important. So you shouldn't interfere, and should allow the baby to be killed.

After the Holocaust, Jews around the world (rightly) condemned the world powers for allowing the Holocaust to happen. They excoriated the lack of resistance in Germany, in nations the Nazis conquered, the reluctance of people to help their Jewish neighbors escape the Nazis, and the refusal of the Allies to bomb the camps, railroads, and other infrastructure that made the mass slaughter possible. But why? The world was just following halacha according to Tosefos! You don't have to risk your own life to not be a passive participant in a murder. Whether that means Germans resisting the Nazi government, or Poles hiding their Jewish neighbors, or American and British airmen risking their lives to bomb railroad lines to concentration camps.

For halacha l'maisah, it becomes more complicated. The Yerushalmi learns from the pasuk, "Lo ta'amod al dam re'echa," “Do not stand by your brother's blood.” that one is obligated to put himself at risk to save another's life. But can we fault the world for paskening like Tosofs?

This is what happens when you turn moral questions into legal questions. The question of whether to allow yourself to be thrown onto a baby is strongly reminiscent of the Trolley Problem, and is a question for  philosophy, for ethicists, not jurists. Most people would find it immoral to be complicit in a murder. Turning it into a legal question strips it of its ethical dimension, and allows the question to be decided in a legalistic rather than a moral framework. Even the Yerushalmi, which obligates one to risk himself to save another person, comes to that conclusion on legal grounds based on a proof text, without consideration of the morality of the question.

I wonder if this might tie into the recent spate of arrests in Lakewood. In a community immersed in Talmudic legalism, there may be some who have lost sight of the moral dimension of their actions. They have learned to judge the permissibility of an action based on its halachic legality, without considering its morality. If it's muttar, it's allowable, even if, when on the other side of it, they might complain about its immorality.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Yeridos hadoros

It occurred to me that one reason great scholars of the past appear far smarter than they were is because generations of subsequent scholars have ironed out their work and added layers of supposed depth. A large part of this is the assumption that when a scholar contradicts himself, the solution is never that he changed his mind, or forgot what he had said possibly decades earlier, and certainly not that he made a mistake. Instead, the "apparent" contradiction is reconciled. So a taana's words accrete the clever insights of amoraim  and geonim who lived hundreds of years later, rishonim who lived a thousand years later, and continues to have depth added by current achronim. These centuries of accreted cleverness contribute to the perceived greatness of the taana, who is assumed to have meant all the things that later scholars attribute to him. All of these insights are seen to reflect the scholarship and intellect of the taana, and he appears far more brilliant than he may have been.

So too with amoraim, geonim, etc., but each epoch of scholars has a couple of centuries less worth of clever commentary than the one before it. The older a source is, the more commentary and clever reconciliations is has accreted. So the older the source, the greater it seems, and we have a seeming confirmation of yeridos hadoros.