Thursday, June 30, 2005

June 2005

Thursday, June 30, 2005

When They Severed Earth From Sky

An interesting book on mythology, and why it’s not all just a bunch of crazy stories. The authors show how ancient myths were often really descriptions of important events, passed down through oral transmission amazingly unchanged for sometimes thousands of years, until they were eventually written down.

If you think about it, in the really ancient world there was less ‘news’ to talk about. Technology, Politics and Global Events were mostly non issues. The most newsworthy happenings would all have been natural: Floods, Volcanoes, Earthquakes, Tsunamis, Eclipses and Comets. So when an event such as these happened, it was important to describe it in such a way that the story could survive through many generations, without being written down, since writing hadn’t been invented yet, and nobody was sure when it would.

Why was it important to the ancients to preserve these events? It could have been for a few reasons: Either to warn their descendents about it, e.g. Not to live in a volcanic area, or just for the historical record, or maybe they attached some religious significance to the event.

The key to their success was in the encoding of the myth. The message was often repeated in various ways, so that even if one part of the message got messed up, the key point would still be there. Also, memorable details were often added to make it more interesting.

Using some examples of fire breathing giant myths from the Native Americans, they show how these myths are actually accounts of volcanic activity in that area.

The book in general has two explanations for why these events are depicted as fantastical tales of fire breathing giants and the like. Either these additional details were invented to try and explain the volcanic phenomenon, since the human mind naturally tries to find explanations for things. Or alternatively the ancients knew there wasn’t really a fire breathing giant inside the volcano, but they added that detail just to make the story more interesting and therefore more likely to survive through the ages.

They also show how other myths, such as dragons, came to be. Basically, grave diggers used to dig up ancient burial mounds and the methane gas inside would catch fire. Early dragon mythology such as Beowulf was really about fire breathing serpents, which again was either an extra detail added, or an explanation of where the fire came from. The dragon myth isn’t about dinosaurs, and are certainly not proof that dinosaurs and humans once existed together.

They briefly mention Har Sinai as a typical volcano myth. However, it seems to me there is one significant difference. In all the other volcano myths, the fire breathing giant never delivered a message of ethical monotheism.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Dinosaurs in Brooklyn Tonite

Rabbi Slifkin is speaking tonite in Brooklyn, details here.

I have it on good authority that some bloggers will be there. Who knows, maybe even I will show up !

The talk is entitled: The Terror of Dinosaurs, Confronting the Challenges of Creation, Dinosaurs, and the Age of the Universe".

For those who are unable to attend, here is a short summary:
  • Dinosaurs existed
  • Don't take Breishis literally
  • The world is billions of years old
  • The evidence is overwhelming, it doesn't pay to ignore it
  • There are some Rishonim and Acharonim who are okay with that
  • The current RW Gedolim are not, but what the heck do they know about science anyway?

I encourage my readers to attend. Rabbi Slifkin is an entertaining and fascinating speaker and his cause needs all the support it can get. And he's only a little bit of a kiruv clown.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Conservative Blues

Selected quotes from this article in the Jewish Week regarding JTS and the Conservative Movement.

Observers say the Conservative movement, whose membership has been shrinking in the past 15 years, must find a leader who can articulate its central commitment to Torah but also shift its focus toward a newly expansive, inclusive and inspiring vision for the denomination.

From an Orthodox perspective, the phrase ‘central commitment to Torah’ sounds out of place when describing the Conservative movement, but I guess its all relative.

In addition, the next chancellor must confront the issue of ordaining gay and lesbian rabbis, which has split the movement’s leaders, largely along generational lines, for 15 years.

It’s obvious which way that’s going. The entire civilized world is heading towards total acceptance of all Gay & Lesbian rights. The only holdouts will be the fundamentalists. No way will the Conservative (or any non Orthodox) movement be able to stand up to this. (As to whether this is a good thing or a bad thing I won’t comment.)

Overall, the most significant issue buffeting the movement continues to be its shrinking size. While the Conservative movement was for decades the country’s largest, the most recent National Jewish Population Study (NJPS) showed that it had shrunk as the Reform movement had grown.

While its tempting to say ‘see, we told you so’ we should bear in mind that Orthodoxy shrunk incredible after the emancipation, and has only just recovered slightly in recent decades.

The 1990 NJPS showed a roughly even amount of constituents in the Conservative and Reform movements. But a decade later, in the 2000-01 NJPS, 26 percent of American Jewish adults described themselves as Conservative, with 35 percent as Reform. The later study also showed that nearly half of adult Jews raised within the Conservative movement are no longer connected to it, with most of them gone to Reform.

Oh what the heck. See ! We told you so. If you don’t have a strong commitment to classical Halachah you may as well forget about it. There's really not much reason for someone to stay Conservative over Reform.(As to whether this is a good thing or a bad thing I won’t comment.)

“Our understanding of, and the way we try and teach commitment to Jewish law, is one that has been in many ways too narrow,” said Rabbi Gordon Tucker … “The idea that there is a more expansive and multi-dimensional way of thinking of halachic commitment is something we haven’t dared to try out and articulate to our public. To some extent that’s held us back for reasons I completely understand,” he said.

More expansive ?! More multi-dimensional ?! What the heck could that be ? Conservative Halachah is already pretty weak. Any weaker and what’s the point? I suppose there are csome 'frum' Conservatives, but the only ones I have ever met are the Rabbis. All the Conservative Jews I know (including my boss) keep very limited halachah, maybe Yom Kippur and not eating Pig. And even that is questionable as to whether they are doing it for halachik, or traditional / cultural reasons. Tucker is a well read guy though, he translated AJ Heschels Torah Min Hashamayim.

“Presenting a Judaism of joy is much more powerful to people than presenting a Judaism of defiant, rear-guard obligation,” said Rabbi Wolpe. “That is often the way that Conservative Judaism is seen.”

Orthodox Judaism too I think.

“The question of merging the intellectual understanding of Judaism with the emotional, spiritual side has always been a tension in the movement,” said Rabbi Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly. “It ebbs and flows depending on where general culture is.

Very true. Hence the recent interest in Kabalah and spirituality, even in the Orthodox world.

“Today there’s a greater emphasis on the spiritual, on the heart side, which we see in all religious camps. I agree that there’s a need for that in the movement,” he said. “As much as we want to maintain our own intellectual approach to understanding Judaism, faith can’t be intellectual alone. It has to have in it that emotional component, that sense of godliness and mystery.”

Good point. I think we can all agree to that (except maybe Gil & DovBear)

“I like to think that there’s a place in the Conservative movement for families which are intermarried and also for those people who have become more religious,” said Kahn-Troster. “I like to think we’ll have room for both. My fear is that one or the other group will get ignored. We can’t be afraid of the diversity.

Oh please. Not gonna happen. No movement can successfully cater to religious families and inter-married families and give both a sense of legitimacy. It’s a stira minei ubai. Maybe thats why they need a new multi-dimensional halachah. In dimension X, its important to keep halachah. But in dimension Y, its okay to be intermarried.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Can one be Rational & Orthodox ? Conclusion

Seems not.

DovBear tried valiantly below, but ultimately was defeated. At the minimum, Orthodoxy demands belief in G-d, prophecy, divine revelation, miracles, a neshamah / soul with some kind of spiritual connection, hashgachah prattis / clallis and quite a few other things too. Its tempting to try and construct natural / rational reasons and models for some of these, but ultimately its not possible, assuming you are trying to stay Orthodox. I baited DovBear on the neshamah aspect, but you could equally well advance arguments from prophecy or other similar things.

So what to do ? Become Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist? Not an option for many Orthodox people. Maybe try and be as rational as possible? As DovBear says "I believe what the Torah demands me to believe but nothing more", or "I believe in G-d but not this spiritual mumbo-jumbo" (funny, most skeptics would say G-d IS spiritual mumbo-jumbo). Seems kind of dishonest to me.

Until we get some clear answers, I would have to say that spirituality cannot be discounted. Spirituality is G-d, and if (like DovBear), you want to throw spirituality out the window, then G-d goes too.

Anyway, got to go now, my maggid has some divine secrets to tell me. Hopefully it will be some good content for my next post.

The Great Spiritual Debate

DovBear said:

Spirituality can't be perceived by physical receptors like our senses

I said:

I don't understand what the heck DovBear is talking about. If there is no connection at all between the physical and the spiritual, how does a neshamah work?

DovBear said:

The neshama is spiritual. I didn't say there was no connection between the physical and spiritual, I said there was no way us to perceive the spiritual. Our ears, our eyes - they tools we use to experience the world that surrounds us - can only perceive the physical, not the spiritual.

In other words, DovBear is saying the connection is one way only. The physical cannot perceive the spiritual, but the spiritual can perceive the physical. The neshamah, which is spiritual, can perceive what the physical body is doing, and hence gets elevated when your physical body does a mitzvah, however the physical body can't perceive the spiritual at all.

Is that what you are saying? Because if so, how do you become a better person through mitzvot? Is that just a physical process, with no spiritual component at all ? So in effect we have a dual process running. Your neshama gets elevated, and also your physical body, in two independent ways?

Miami Machshavah

Rachak bemoans the current state of blogodoxy:

And the debate is continuing in various places. When will this ever end? What ever happened fto Kavod for people greater than one's self? What ever happened to Da'as Torah? Yiras Shomayaim? Yiras Chayt? All of that is out the window in today's society.

His reponse to all these heinous sins? His solution to doubts, lack of faith and all the troubles that afflict modern man? Why, a quote from that well known source of hashkafah, that font of all wisdom, that epitome of high pitched singing, the Miami Boys Choir of course:

"We will prevail, we will not fail on the ultimate derech of Torah. We march with pride with our ancient pride on the ultimate derech of Toirah. Got to be strong, got to be strong, got to be, got to be, be strong, be strong. We do proclaim, in HaShem's name, we will stay strong, we won't go wrong, we will prevail..."

Moiradick. But what do the London School of Jewish Song have to say about it ? Is it a machlokes Pirchei Choirs ? And lets not forget the Godol Hador of jewish singing machshavah, Harav Uncle Moishy:

Lets go to shul today, lets go to shul,
Lets go to shul today, lets go to shul,
With a siddur here and a chumash here,
Lets go to shul !

New Color Scheme for Frumteens

Rachak says:

There is some bad news today on everyone's favorite site, - Torah for Teenagers. Do to an error while upgrading their search function, they sadly lost all posts from January 2005 until June 25, 2005. MODERATOR calls it a disaster and horrific. However, the Rabbi Moderator said that his international team of technicians are thinking about totally re-designing the red-white-and blue site to add more functionality and custom fixes.

Yeah right. Same thing happened to me. Due to an error while changing my digital watch battery, I have sadly lost all those posts making fun of the Gedolim. Clearly Frumteens has caved in to pressure and deleted some of his more noxious posts. Rachak, get a clue.

Also, what's all this about the 'red, white and blue' site? A Communist, Zionist color scheme ?! Chas Vesholom! Frumteens needs something more appropriate for his anti-Zionist Satmar hate site. How about red, white, green and black ?

Image hosted by

Sunday, June 26, 2005

I'm Truly Spiritual, You're Just Touchy Feely

One of the primary goals in life for most people is to be 'spiritual'. But just what is spirituality? The dictionary defines spirituality as "The state, quality, manner, or fact of being spiritual". Great. The dictionary furthermore defines spiritual as

1. Of, relating to, consisting of, or having the nature of spirit; not tangible or material.
2. Of, concerned with, or affecting the soul.
3. Of, from, or relating to God; deific.
4. Of or belonging to a church or religion; sacred.
5. Relating to or having the nature of spirits or a spirit; supernatural.

That's not much help either.

Mirty said:

Is it all halacha and nothing else? No human side to it at all? Even my own Orthodox parents wouldn't take as narrow a view of Judaism as some learned Orthodox bloggers do.

To which Gil Student responded:

Spirituality certainly exists but it follows halakhah, and not the other way around. Halakhah tells you how to do things, what to focus on and how to prioritize and characterize different acts. Your heart should follow your intellect and not vice-versa.

To which ADDeRabbi replied:

R' Gil - You know as well as we all do that there is a content to certain 'non-halakhic' and even 'non-spiritual' acts that are nevertheless given importance in Orthodox circles. A prime example is reading the Ketubah at a wedding - it's not a fulfillment of anything, and not particularly spiritual, yet is considered the second-highest honor at a wedding.

Also recall the DovBear / Lisa exchange on whether Kugel can induce a spiritual feeling. DovBear claims that our senses are unable to perceive spirituality.

What we have here is people thinking they are arguing but in reality they are talking about completely different things. Mirty is talking about a spiritual feeling. Gil is talking about halachic observance. ADDeRabbi is talking about non-halachic but nevertheless significant activities. Lisa is talking about kugel and I don't understand what the heck DovBear is talking about. If there is no connection at all between the physical and the spiritual, how does a neshamah work?

Let’s discuss the issue properly. From an Orthodox perspective, we can identify at least two major types of spirituality:

1. Emotional Spirituality
2. Halachic Spirituality

1. Emotional Spirituality
Let’s define emotional spirituality as purely the emotional aspect of spirituality, i.e. the feeling that one gets from a specific act, state of being, place, relationship or some such. The feeling expresses itself in 3 major ways:

1a. G-d Centered Spirituality
This is a feeling of being connected or close to G-d. One may also feel calm, at peace, happy and other positive emotions.

1b. Self-Centered Spirituality
This is a feeling of being elevated through the kedushah and enhanced ruchniyus gained through performance of a mitzvah or religious study.

1c. Other-Centered Spirituality

This is a feeling of loving one's fellow man, and wanting to help him/her in any way. One may also feel a sense of connectedness with all living beings.

2. Halachic Spirituality

Halachic Spirituality would be a Neshamah’s intrinsic gain in ruchniyus, achieved by observance of a mitzvah, limud torah, prishus from an aveirah or similar. It's not an emotion (though it certainly could be and typically might be combined with a spiritual emotion), but rather a concrete gain in 'spirituality', as defined and measured by G-d.

Of course, we don't know s'char mitzvah, and everyone has a different nisayon and yetzer horah, so there is no way we can really judge who is on what level. Maybe the letzan at the back of shul is really a lamed vovnick, while the Rav is really a scumbag. However the world would be a strange place indeed if we went around putting tzadikkim and reshoim on the same level, so with our limited comprehension we are forced to judge people on appearances and make determinations. It couldn't really work any other way.

So, having defined the basics, we can ask some important questions.

1. Does Orthodox Judaism recognize any type of Emotional Spirituality as having direct religious significance in of itself? Or is the value of G-d centered spirituality (for example) only realized if it causes the individual to go perform a mitzvah or similar?

2. If emotional spirituality is indeed of inherent value from a religious perspective, is the way this spirituality was achieved important? For example, I could get a G-d or People centered spirituality from taking certain drugs. Is this a mitzvah habaah beaverah? What if I get the spiritual feeling from something innocuous but not specifically religious, for example a kumsitz, or kugel? Is it of value then? What if doing something kneged halachah (e.g. woman leyning for men) arouses intense spiritual feelings in the woman, is that feeling of value? If halachic observance is a means to an end, rather than the end itself (and the Rambam and other rationalists seem to think so), then could a spiritual feeling trump halachah? If so, wouldn’t we be opening up Judaism to anarchy?

3. Is Halachic Spirituality observable with our senses ? In fact does Halachic Spirituality interact with the physical world in any way at all? If you hold a Neshamah interacts with the physical world, then why not spirituality? And if a Neshamah does not interact with the physical world at all, then the implication is that by doing mitzvot G-d enables your Neshamah to grow ‘spiritually’, but as far as you are concerned in this world, you are really just the same physical body. Any gains you feel are simply emotional and intellectual. This is a hard position to take. It seems to be a very basic tenet in Orthodox Judaism that your body and soul are somehow intertwined, and the physical and spiritual do indeed interact. Possibly your soul i.e. Neshamah i.e. A Spiritual Entity is actually your consciousness?

4. Is learning Torah and doing Mitzvos the only path to Halachic Spirituality? Could a non frum or non Jewish person be more spiritual than a frum person by following their own spiritual path?

5. Does Orthodox Judaism even count spirituality as a goal? Sure, Kedushah is a goal. But is Kedushah the same as spirituality?

The Best of What Do American Jews Believe Part I

David Berger

The joy and pain of the religious life speak to the profoundest needs and most exalted yearnings of the human spirit. So demanding, so inexorable are these needs that to abandon God is perforce to seek other gods. I do not speak of a yearning for cheap comfort. One of the many paradoxes of the human condition is that we seek tranquility, yet it makes us restless. The comforts of serious religion come amid the very anguish that it addresses, even creates. God is Provider of consolation and Author of suffering. "Sages," say the talmudic rabbis, "have no rest in this world or in the world to come."

A significant segment of Reform Jewry has become little more than a vehicle for fashionable social and political trends, and even mainstream Conservative Judaism is no longer anchored by a firm commitment to Jewish law. Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, face the challenge of reinvigorating our commitment to those strands of the tradition which underscore the universal ethic of Judaism. I do not pretend to know quite how this blend of a particularistic commitment to the "sanctity of Israel" and a larger vision of a perfected world works to produce a special impact on humanity as a whole, but the remarkable, disproportionate attention that a tiny people has received throughout its history indicates that somehow God knew what He was doing.

Saul Berman

The more I study the Torah the more I am convinced that it is the revealed word of God. The more I study ancient cultures, the more I see the absolutely radical disparity between the values of pagan civilizations and the values which Torah brought into the world. Torah was God's weapon in the war against idolatrous culture; and war it was.

I believe that the Torah is the expression of God's wisdom for the Jewish people, and ultimately for all of humanity. Therefore, every mitzvah of the Torah is the bearer of meaning and of potential for perfection. The distinctive values of Torah are taught through laws directly governing the relationships among individuals. Those same values are also taught through their ritual enactment which serves as symbolic communication, shared by the community and available for transmission to the next generation.

We are in some measure the victims of our own success. Partly through our own efforts and partly through the achievements of Christianity and Islam, the dominant elements of the Jewish world view have become commonly accepted, at least in principle if not in practice, by Western society. So much so, that, tragically, the average Jew would probably not be able to assert with any confidence the existence of a distinctive Jewish ethic.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Why I Believe

Gil talks about why he believes. I was disappointed. (Update: Not at Gil himself. I'm sure his belief is fine. Its his business after all. I was disappointed at the post I mean).

Last week, I was asked why I believe. So here are my thoughts:

1. You have to differentiate between difficulties and doubts. There is no easy way to identify something as a doubt or a difficulty, but when you have enough difficulties they cumulatively turn into doubts.

True enough.

The more I learn Torah, the more truth I find and the less significant the difficulties that I have become.

So Reason Number 1: The more you learn, the more you see ‘truth’, and the more any ‘difficulties’ become less significant. There’s not much information in there, except maybe advice to learn more. But presumably only Torah, not history or archeology.

I believe in the general structure of Torah -- Torah She-Bi-Khsav, Torah She-Be-Al Peh, the need for commandments and a structure to conservatively develop halakhah over time (this last point is confusing and requires elaboration; I contend that almost everyone would agree with it if said in the right way).

That’s not a ‘why’, it's just a statement of what you believe

I see the profundity in even the most obscure aspects of Torah and the multiple ways of reading the Torah.

Are you saying that’s a reason? It’s profound? So is physics. OK, Reason Number 2: Torah is Profound, (and apparently that’s unusual).

I delight in the creativity of the greatest Torah scholars of all generations,

That doesn’t sound like a reason. Secular scholars are pretty creative too.

and the relative intellectual freedom that they had to be so creative.

Intellectual freedom ? Maybe up to the 12th Century, not so much since.

Of the people I have seen lose faith, they usually spend day and night thinking about the difficulties and nothing else, so that these problems grow in their minds into insurmountable barriers. If they would take a step back and look at the big picture, the difficulties would shrink in perspective.

So Reason Number 3: The difficulties shrink if you look at the big picture. Not much of an explanation there either. What big picture?

2. Humility. When I was in yeshiva, I was the katan she-ba-haburah (the least of the group). Commenters and readers here like to congratulate me on my blogging brilliance but I know better. I know where my "peers" are and how great they have grown. I left yeshiva at the age of 22; some are still in yeshiva, learning and teaching strong. I have been fortunate enough to have spent time with some truly brilliant students and scholars, many of them with very different skills and interests, and to see how frumkeit need not be sacrificed for intellectual curiosity and creativity. Yes, all of the people of whom I am thinking have very different paths in life and have often reached very different conclusions in their thinking. That is part of my point. I have been blessed by having seen and been taught multiple paths in Torah. That, alone, solves most problems that frum people face.

You seem to be answering a slightly different question. Not so much, ‘Why I believe’, but more ‘Why I continue to believe despite knowing all the evidence to the contrary’. And your reason here appears to be ‘Because I can be creative’. Not much of a reason.

Additionally, time and again over my short life, I have faced difficulties that I thought were unsolvable, only later to discover a solution. Sometimes it took a few years, sometimes days. Sometimes I just had to ask someone while other times I searched through libraries. I have been convinced enough times that something was wrong, only to be later convinced that it is correct, to develop patience and humility. Some things are entirely false and some problems are unsolvable. But my inability to solve a problem is not a definitive evaluation.

OK, Reason Number 4: I believe despite difficulties, because in my experience difficulties can often be overcome. A little lame. Again, you seem to be answering why you continue to believe despite difficulties, but don't really offer much.

3. Proofs. I don't need to prove Judaism. Personally, I have never been interested in the whole "Age of the Universe" or Evolution issues, even if you would not be able to know that from reading this blog. It is not even a difficulty for me, certainly not a doubt. But I don't believe any single proof that I have seen for Judaism. I remember once in college, a professor, R. Asher Ziv (whom I've been informed is still alive and well and was recently spotted in Teaneck), quoted an article in an old journal that supposedly proved the Divine origin of the Torah. So, using the wonderful library resources that YU has, I tracked down the article to finally have proof to present to others. Nothing. The same old arguments that don't stand up to critical questioning.

No proofs, okay.

The closest thing that I have found to a proof, really more of an argument, is the existence of the Jewish people after thousands of years. It is, indeed, quite stunning. I know, plenty of arguments can be given, not least of which is that the changing of a national name does not mean that the people have disappeared off the face of the earth. Still, with all that considered, it is still quite amazing. Sociological reasons just don't sufficiently explain it.

Reason Number 5: The continued existence of the Jewish People. I wouldn’t have said it like that, since as one commentator pointed out, coakroaches are survivors too. I would rather point to the incredible history of the Jewish People, more than just its survival.

More importantly, I am not an empiricist. I believe in things that cannot be proven, because to do otherwise is absurd. Proof has high standards that cannot always be reached. But just because something cannot be proven does not mean that it is not true.

Kind of lame. You believe because not everything needs to be proven ?

Ask any prosecuting attorney. Additionally, there is more than one way to learn things. Rational thought is only one way. Intuition and emotion are important methods that we all use in arriving at truth (see this post), even if we like to pretend that we are purely rational beings.

Your intuition and emotion are reasons why you believe ? You don’t explain though. Is this the ‘kugel’ argument ?

Overall, you offer very few reasons why you believe. Most of your post is about why the many difficulties you are aware of don't bother you too much. Thats a different question.

People are people so why should it be, the generations have declined so awfully?

Someone recently forwarded me an email containing a dvar torah, sent to a select group of people. The author is apparently a yungerman in kollel. In the email, the author makes the following statement:

Reb Yeruchom zt"l writes that in the 1800's there were many thousands of people on the same spiritual level as the Chofetz Chaim, but with yeridas hadoros, without concentrated focused study of mussar, these levels plummeted.

I find this very difficult to understand. In the 1800’s there were so many people like the Chofetz Chaim, but one hundred years later there was only one ? (Or maybe none, the quote is somewhat ambiguous).

At that rate of decline, if you extrapolate backwards, the level of people 1,000 years ago, or even 2,000 years ago must have been incredible. Even the common man must have been an incredible tzaddik. I suppose everything is relative, so maybe it wasn’t so noticeable back then. But with everybody being a tzaddik and all, the world must have been such an incredible place. So full of Tzadikkim! Funny that history doesn’t really show that.

Maybe just the frum Jews were all incredible tzadikkim, and everyone else was not. That would explain world history somewhat. In other words, Yeridas Hadoros only applies to frum Jews, because of the Sinai effect. The further away from Sinai you are the more you decline. The goyim however didn’t have Sinai, so it could be they are static, or maybe have even improved due to evolution. So back then the goyim weren’t Tzadikkim at all. And that explains world history.

But, if we are declining from Sinai, whereas the goyim are static or even evolving, at what point do the two lines cross? How much time do we have left until the goyim start to be better us? Is it possible they could start to be better than us? Chas vesholom! They must be declining too. Except they didn’t have Sinai, so why are they declining? I suppose as background players their status must be influenced by ours.

So, al kol ponim, you have to say just the frum Jews were amazing tzadikkim back then. But we know for sure that there were also plenty of evil Jews too (obviously not frum ones though). So the span between good and evil back then must have been mind-boggling. One the one hand, you had all these incredible Tzaddikim walking around, and then you had all those Reshoim. Or maybe the Reshoim were also on a higher level back then ?

Also, one final kashye on Reb Yeruchom. He says,

'but with yeridas hadoros, without concentrated focused study of mussar, these levels plummeted'

This implies that Yeridas Hadoros can be halted, or even reversed with Mussar! Is that really true? If so, shouldn't Mussar be the primary preoccupation of the dor?

Its all very shverre. Perhaps our learned friends in kollel can explain it to us?

Hashkafah 101

Steve Brizel made the following comment on my blog:

Whether or not Daas Torah or any other hashkafa is right or wrong bores me. All hashkafos today outside of Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim are just so much icing on a proverbial cake.

This statement is quite remarkable for a number of reasons:

1. There are no Roshei Teivos
2. There is no mention of RYBS
3. He does not use the phrase 'right wing cachetism'.

Just kidding.

UPDATE ! Steve Says:

GH-I think you misconstrued my comment. Of course, my frame of reference was to RYBS who IMO eschewed all of the ideologies that I cited,especially Daas Torah, TIDE or TuM.R Rakkafert's book sets forth numerous statements of RYBS lack of comfort with the practical application of each of these ideologies.

Tee hee.

What surprised me about this statement is how similar it is to my entire hashkafic view, which I detailed in this post.
  • Torah
  • Avodah
  • Gemilus Chasadim
And thats what it's all about. Hey !

Just in case you forgot my hashkafah, I'm going to repeat it. Some people didn't like it, but the more I learn, the more I realize how correct it is. Here it is in extremely condensed form.

The point of life is to improve your soul. Your physical body and mind somehow encapsulates your soul. Whether your soul is just your consciousness, or something additional and metaphysical, is hard to tell. We could possibly perform some control expirements with various volunteers and pieces of kugel, but I don't wish to get into a debate about whether Yerushalmi, Lokshen or Potato Kugel is appropriate.

Your soul is a combination of your intellect and your emotions. You can judge a soul on three things: Its level of knowledge / understanding, its character, and its level of sprituality / holiness. Therefore it makes sense that the three things to be addressed are as follows:
  • Torah = Improve Your Knowledge / Understanding
  • Avodah = Improve Your Spirituality / Holiness
  • Gemilus Chasadim = Improve Your Character / Middos
All the Mitzvos and Averos fall into one or more of the above three categories. A fourth category is also required to maintain our Jewish identity. These involve various prohibitions of mixing with non-Jews etc. There is no commandment which does not fall into at least one of the above categories. Although there have been strands within our tradition that say we were just created for the glory of G-d, or that we should be as servants who just keep the commandments for no reason, I cannot accept that. Everything has a reason. We just have to find them.

Good luck !

Thursday, June 23, 2005

iz ah rayah tzu Darvin

I received the following story via email. The source is reliable. I changed all the names to avoid loshon horah.

In Yeshivah X, in the late 1950s, there was a black janitor, right out of a book, a real old school black guy, probably the son or grandson of slaves. Once, the Rosh Yeshivah and a few guys were together and the janitor was there as well. The Rosh Yeshivah told the guys in Yiddish "iz ah rayah tzu Darvin".

Before anyone gets all heated up, it was the 50’s. And maybe the Rosh Yeshivah had a sense of humor, and was just trying to lighten up the atmosphere. Did anyone in the 50’s even know of political correctness? Or racism? Lets not be too quick to judge. Its not fair to judge someone for some off hand comments spoken to a handful of guys.

However, one thing I am interested in is this:

Can we deduce from this story that this Rosh Yeshivah believed in evolution?

Deep Yesodos in Kugel

Lisa said:

‘G-d can easily be proven. Have you experienced Shabbat or Yom Tov? Tasted kugel on Shabbat? Does it ever taste that way on any other day? Your senses must be totally dead not to perceive spirituality.’

To which DovBear replied:

‘What foolishness. The existence of God can not be proven by reason, and spirituality can't be perceived by physical receptors like our senses. Lisa, like many hysterics, is confusing emotion with knowledge.’

This is an interesting exchange, for a number of reasons, with numerous points to debate:

  1. Does kugel actually taste better on Shabbat, or do people just think it tastes better ?

  2. Since taste is determined by the brain, is there any difference?

  3. If it actually tastes better, is it the kugel that is transformed or is it the person who is transformed? (Din in the chefzah or gavrah? Nafkah minah if a goy eats the kugel.)

  4. Either way, is this for spiritual reasons, or for more natural reasons?

  5. If for spiritual reasons, can this be used as a proof for G-d or Judaism?

  6. Can spirituality be perceived with the senses ? If I see someone who looks ‘spiritual’, am I not seeing spirituality ? And if you claim that its just my brain interpreting the vision as something spiritual, but isn’t that what happens with any and all vision, my brain supplies the decoding of the optical information passed by the eyes, either consciously or sub-consciously, or some mixture of both?

  7. Is spirituality a physical phenomenon, a metaphysical phenomenon, or just something we imagine?

  8. Is a Neshamah in the same category as Spirituality ? If so, is a Neshama physical (our consciousness perhaps), metaphysical (hewn from the kisei hacavod), or just something we imagine?

  9. Can metaphysical / spiritual entities interact with the physical / material world? If we see an angel or G-d, is that only because the angel or G-d have manifested themselves in an entirely physical fashion, or is it possible that the pyhsical and spiritual can interact?
A very complex subject indeed. Many great secrets are hidden within this topic. I am not joking.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Learning Gemarah the Hard Way

I spent many years in UO institutions, primarily learning Gemarah. Sure, I had a 15 minute Mussar seder where I went through Mesilas Yesharim, and in high school I learnt some Halachah, and maybe a bit of Tenach, but 95% of it was Gemarah. Eventually, I ended up quite good at it. But I don't know Tenach to save my life.

One thing that always disturbed me is probably something that bothers many people, the lack of punctuation and structure in the Vilna shas layout. It makes an already difficult subject even more difficult.

I was particularly disapointed when Artscroll decided to use the Vilna layout for the Schottenstein Edition, it would have been a golden opportunity for them to make some changes. I guess they were in enough hot water already with the fundies for daring to use a goyish language, so they didn't want to push it.

Recently I saw a website called Gemara Markings, which aims to provide a more graphical and structured layout of the Gemarah. Its an interesting idea. I also know of a kollel fellow who is pursuing a kind of outline approach, and thinks it could be a big hit. Good luck to him. I doubt either will be successful because chas vesholom we should make any changes.

At the very least we could use some punctuation, if nothing else. Its been years since I've seen a Shteinzaltz but I recall he had punctuation in there.

Another interesting concept is Revadim, where the methodology is to seperate out the various layers in the Gemarah by chronology. Again, such an inovation is viewed as bad by the Chareidim, and Revadim have a page dedicated to rebutting the criticisms from the Right wing.

It's sad that the Chareidim are so opposed to any forms of progress, even with learning Torah. I guess if studying Gemarah was made easier, anyone could do it, thereby breaking the monopoly. This commoditization of information is already going on though. Any pisher with a computer can get a Bar Ilan CD and get some level of bekius. Of course some would claim that this is a bad turn of events, because people who really aren't qualified now think they now everything. However, ultimately the free availability of information can only be a good thing in my opinion.

Hat tip Sarah (A woman learning Gemarah ? Gasp !)

Blogging Gedolim

I just read this:

Sun President, COO and chief blogger Jonathan Schwartz called blogging essential for leadership. "If you want to be a leader, I can't see surviving without a blog." He added that "authenticity is paramount," and executives who have ghost writers won't be effective communicators. He exaggerates, many corporate, political and leaders in other domains, are doing fine without blogs, but he has a point. In the increasingly networked world, transparency, authenticity and building trust will be a most valued commodity, and blogging helps enable that capability.

You know where I am going with this, its obvious ....

The Gedolim need to have blogs !

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Geldof vs. The Gedolim

Earlier, I questioned why the Gedolim couldn't get more involved in world affairs, such as the upcoming G8 Summit, or aid to Africa. If even Pink Floyd can do get involved, why not the Gedolim ? Are the opinions of the world leaders of the one true religion less important than some ageing rock stars ? Should the Gedolim not show some interest in world affairs ? The chareidi commentators mostly gave a bunch of evasive and lame answers: They're too busy, they have more pressing Jewish concerns (bugs and wigs?), we need to look after our own etc etc.

However it turns out that I was wrong. One Godol did send a message to the G8, as follows:

At this time when you, as leaders of the eight most developed nations in the world, are preparing to reflect upon the most important problems of the international community, I wish to assure you of my personal and spiritual closeness to you. I also express the hope that, in these days of intense work, no person and no nation will be excluded from your concerns. Without allowing yourselves to be overwhelmed by the weight of the various issues involved. I am confident that you will do all you can to promote a culture of solidarity, which will make possible concrete solutions to the problems which weigh most heavily in the lives of our brothers and sisters and in their relations with others - peace, poverty, health and the environment.

Praying fervently that your meeting will bring excellent results, I invoke upon you the blessings of Almighty God."

Not a bad message ! So which Godol was this ? R' Elyashiv ? Rav Moshe Shapiro ? Rav Mattisyahu ? No. Pope John Paul II of course.

The real reason that the Gedolim don't get involved is because they are mostly elderly, sheltered scholars, with almost no contact with the real world, who wouldn't know the G8 from a V8. They are barely qualified to comment on local Jewish issues, let alone on global issues. They know as much about global issues as they do about Science. In other words, nothing at all.

And, this is not even a criticism of the Gedolim. They are what they are, specialists in the minutae of Halachah, and little else. The bit that bothers me is when the Chareidim think the Gedolim are world class leaders, or even leaders. Or even people qualified to set a mehalech for the Jewish community. Or even a mehalech for the UO community. They really are not that qualified.

Unless of course, you believe in the concept of Daas Torah and Ruach Hakodesh. The Gedolim know everything there is to know, just by sitting and learning. In which case, this brings me right back to my original question. Don't they have some words of wisdom for the G8?

My Theory on the Rambam

I just got this book, ‘Interpreting Maimonides’ by Marvin Fox. Looks good. But before I read it, and have my preconceived notions irretrievably shattered by exhaustive scholarship, here is what I think of the Rambam.

I know quite a few Rabbis, and they all have one thing in common. Their true views are more heretical than their spoken and written views. This stands to reason. It’s unlikely you will get a Rabbi who is secretly a fundamentalist but pretends to be more open minded. Actually, I take that back. I know quite a few of those too, they are all in kiruv.

Anyways, we all know the Moreh is quite heretical. Some fundies claim that the Rambam only wrote it to help the philosophically off the derech Jews of his generation, but really the Rambam himself was much frummer. The Rambam as an early Kiruv Clown ? I don’t buy it. I think it more likely that the Rambam’s real views were in fact much MORE heretical than those written down in the Moreh.

We can only speculate as to what he really thought. Maybe if you could crack the secret code in the Moreh you would see his real views. I tried reading the Moreh backwards and it read ‘I love Eidah, Yitz Greenberg is the greatest !’, so maybe there’s something to that.

Hey Mickey !

I received the following email, concerning my recent post on global awareness:

The need to care for the entirety of humanity is foremost on my mind, and it is certainly a moral value that is central to my political\religious predilections. I find the posts of people like Kishke, Dude, and Bishul frustrating and sad, for exactly the reasons you label them. Although I mostly write this out of sympathy, I'm also just wondering what the point is of trying to speak to people like them, and by extension, pointing out the flaws and inherent contradictions of charedism and yeshivishness. My sense is that one will never "win" on textual grounds, nor on moral grounds -- their language and assumptions are so very different from mine, and the ones I see you espouse on your blog. I can certainly understand why it would be cathartic to do so, particularly if one is trapped (or feeling trapped) in that community; on the other hand, I find, for myself, that having to endure the sentiments, utterly loudly, frequently, and obnoxiously, of the sort just mentioned to be more grating than gratifying. Clearly, then, for myself, I should stop reading -- but I just wonder how you feel or respond to it?

This is a good question. Why do I do it ? How do I feel about it ?

I would say the following:
  • I enjoy sticking it to self-righteous gits, they deserve to be taken down a peg or two. (Of course that’s exactly what they say about me). In real life, you can’t do that (unless you enjoy getting fired).

  • I think it does actually make an impression. Maybe a small one, but its there. Every little bit helps.

  • I enjoy the debates, as long as they don’t get personal. Contrary to what some might think, I’m always open to being proven wrong. When I lose an argument I know it. (Though I may not admit it).

  • My formative years were spent in the UO world, so the attitudes are not a shock to me. In fact, my UO conditioning was so effective that sometimes I have to work hard to not think like that myself. (Daas Hedyot had a good post on that topic).

  • The blogveldt is the only place in the world where UO’s, MO’s and skeptics all get together to discuss issues. (Apart from my family Seder tee-hee ). That’s too valuable to ignore. The social experimentation that can be performed in such an environment is awesome.
Yeah, you heard that last one right: You’re all just mice in my blog-maze. Hey look over here: a kefirah crumb ! Let’s see what you do with that, Mickey !

Reconciling Science & Kabalah

A few months ago, Proffessor Nathan Aviezer had an article in Jewish Action where he attempted to reconcile Science and Kabbalah. He showed how the 10 dimensions of String Theory map to the 10 Sefirot of Kabalah. In this month’s issue, a couple of letter writers took him to task for this, because Science is always changing, Science can be flawed, Science can never be proven, and all the usual crap.

But what really surprised me is that no one criticized Aviezer for his real mistake: Reconciling Science with Kabalah ?! Are you nuts ?! The Sefirot were invented in the middle ages. The only thing they reconcile with is Christian Mysticism. If you want to reconcile Kabalah with anything, try reconciling Judaism and Kabalah. 10 Sefirot and Hashem Echod don’t go together too well you know.

And while we are on the subject: YES, I have read the Radar Article on the Kabala Center, and NO, I still don’t see what all the fuss is about. He sold water. Big deal. Its not crack cocaine. He got some vapid celebrities to donate money. Big deal. They have too much of it anyway. It was either him or Scientology. And how is Berg’s Kabalah any less authentic than anyone else’s Kabalah ? Its all made up anyway.

The Kefirah Dance

I received an email recently from someone who said that the following comment he saw on a blog summed it all up for him:

You're totally dishonest in your approach to Judaism. Objectivity is totally lacking, and effort is minimal. The Torah's divinity is no more believable than Jesus, and probably less so. If you put as much effort into studying Judaism as you do into following the endless edicts of long-ago rabbis, you'd know that.

I've seen your progression many a time, and experienced a lot of it personally. First, you never think about it. Then you notice that a lot of the ancillary things you were taught are false, but you chalk that up to non-critical bits, or "just one opinion." You say days mean eras and the number of soldiers is exaggerated. Then you start reinterpreting Noah to be a local flood, then a moral fable. Then you stop saying Torah was giving on Sinai, but it was from God. Then you say that "something" happened at Sinai, and the Torah reflects that. Then you say that people wrote it, but they were divinely inspired. Then you say that post-that writing, it was corrupted. Then you say that we follow TSBP anyway, and that was divinely inspired. Then you stop trying so hard to deny what your heart sinks to know what's true: it's all made up.

I've seen this little dance at least 15 times in my limited personal experience. If you want to avoid the inevitable slide into reality, you can, of course, just shut your brain off. But if you persist in your investigation of the true history of Judaism, you're bound to make discomfiting discoveries that you'll feel duty-bound to explain away. As they pile up, your resolve to keep fooling yourself will start to erode, and you'll start biting your tongue. Soon enough, your non-mainstream opinions will mark you as a kofer.

This was just a comment on a blog. I think the author would probably agree that broadly speaking, the dance can end up in one of five ways.

1. Chareidi
The person gets disillusioned with the search for answers, realizes there are no good answers, and feels forced to make a decision. After some soul searching he decides to be mechazek his emunah and stops thinking about this stuff. Essentially he turns into a fundamentalist.

2. Pressured Orthoprax
The person decides it’s all bogus, but continues to remain outwardly Orthodox due to pressure from his community, peers, children, spouse or similar. In such cases, the individual would really rather not be there, perceives no value in the religion, and is probably very unhappy.

3. Orthoprax by Choice
The person decides it’s all bogus, but continues to stay within the Orthodox community due to the perceived value he sees in the religious system (spirituality, family values, cultural values etc). In such cases, whilst there may be some tensions due to hashkafah issues, the individual is generally happier since he does perceive value in his lifestyle.

4. Off the Derech
The individual decides it’s all bogus and gives up completely. He starts by breaking the minor halachot and ends up completely irreligious. Essentially, he ends up with nothing (except the freedom to eat cheeseburgers and marry anyone he likes). I would tentatively suggest that such people generally never really saw much value in the religious enterprise in the first place. If they had, they would have turned Orthoprax by Choice.

5. Limited Change
After a while, the individual gets tired of skepticism. There seem to be no good answers, and he has some doubts. On the other hand, he has a deep seated belief in Judaism, so he is not about to give it up based on some doubts. He realizes that an overdose of skepticism is very unhealthy, in all areas of life, not just religion. He maintains an active interest in the Science and Torah debate, but doesn’t let the issues affect his core beliefs and practices. He has moments of doubt, but also moments of faith. Essentially, he makes no changes.

Which one am I ? I’m Number 6:

6. Too Busy
Too busy doing laundry, changing diapers and working on doomed projects to even think about it.

More Holocaust Nonsense

Here is a comment from Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, part of a book review of 'Holocaust Hero: Solomon Schonfeld' by David Kranzler, in this months Jewish Action magazine:

Most revealing of all was the ideological struggle between the secular Jewish establishment and the Orthodox activists over whether saving lives at all costs is the highest priority. In all of Dr. Kranzler’s books, based on carefully documented evidence, the reader is tortured by the question, How many of the six million would have survived had the Orthodox forces carried the day?

What kind of question is that ? Here are some equally silly questions I am tortured by:
  • How many of the six million would have survived had the Gedolim not discouraged people from leaving Europe ?
  • How many of the six million would have survived had the Chareidim been more Zionistic and encouraged people to emigrate to Palestine ?
  • How many of the six million would have survived had the Jews assimilated more into society ?
  • How many of the six million would have survived had Judaism ceased to exist in the 18th century ?
It might be true that the secular zionists were not too interested in saving Eastern European Jewry. It might also be true that the Chareidim were only interested in saving frum Jews. It might be true that the Chareidim were the real heroes of the war, tirelessly working to save European Jewry while the rest of the world looked on with apathy. I haven't studied enough Holocaust history to know for sure. But, the Chareidi version of history (and news) is generally self-serving and innacurate, if papers like the Yated are any indication, hence I would be skeptical of such claims, unless independently validated by a secular or at least very modern holocaust historian.

Monday, June 20, 2005

What do Pink Floyd and the Gedolim have in common ?

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Not a lot, unfortunately. While Pink Floyd are reuniting for a special charity concert for Africa, the Gedolim are remarkably quiet on any and all such issues. What gives ? If, as according to the Chareidi viewpoint, Judaism is the one true religion. And if, as according to the Chareidi viewpoint, Chareidi Judaism is the most authentic, almost perfect, representation of that one true religion. And if, as according to the Chareidi viewpoint, the Gedolim are the (most) perfect specimens of that most perfect strain of that most perfect religion, shouldn’t they have something to say on such an important subject ?

How come we never see any involvement in such charities from the Gedolim?

I can think of the following answers. I will leave it to my esteemed commentators to discuss which answers are the correct ones, if any.

1. The Frumteens Answer
The Goyim are background players. They exist to help us. We do not need to waste any time trying to help them.

2. The Halachik Answer
The Shulchan Oruch is clear where our priorities lie. Charity begins at home. Unless there is a clear ‘Darchei Sholom’ issue, its against the Halachah to help Goyim.

3. The Uninformed Answer
Africa ? G8 ? Vos is dos ? Shvartzes ? You vant they should care about Shvartzes ?

4. The Historical Answer
Chareidi Judaism today is essentially a barely evolved copy of Rabbinical Judaism 2000 years ago. Back then, there was little conception of fighting global problems. The lack of technology, and prevailing world social and political order at that time meant that such concepts were beyond anyone’s imagination. While it’s true that the Neviim spoke about social justice, this was a much more limited concept, and mirrored the Torah’s exhortations to not oppress the (local Jewish) poor, orphans and widows. It is doubtful whether there exists any real mesorah in Judaism that is focused on Global (non Jewish) issues. The Gedolim are simply following that pattern.


5. The Golus Answer
We are in Golus, and we should lie low. If we start speaking about global issues the anti-semites will say there is a Jewish conspiracy.

6. The Torah Answer
By learning Torah day and night the Gedolim are in fact helping to solve world hunger in the most effective way possible.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Seuh Shearim Rosheichem

World famous kofer Rabbi, Rabbi Natan / Nosson Slifkin, is coming to America, to give a series of lectures. You can find the complete schedule here.

I plan to attend one of the programs, maybe I will see some of you there ? I once went to a weekend where he was the scholar in residence, he's quite an entertaining speaker. Hey, maybe we can arrange the long awaited Heshy Grossman debate, with Rabbi Slifkin instead of me ?

In other news, I recently received a leaked email which was extremely juicy, but no way can I blog it. Basically, a well known Rosh Yeshivah committed a mistake of Orlofskian proportions. You would be dumbfounded, I was. I mean, I just don't get it. How can a Rosh Yeshivah be such a fool ? With all that learning ?

I guess if you are a fool, and then you learn a lot, and then you get appointed Rosh Yeshivah, thats all very nice.

But you're still a fool.

A new Orthodoxy ? Not gonna happen

I received the following email recently:

The main problem with all the bloggers (and others) who want to "reclaim" or "rediscover" or "renew" what they consider "authentic Judaism" (IOW, to go back to the "original" intent of the Revelation, stripping away the baggage of the past few thousand years) is that what you end up with is NOT "Orthodox Judaism" as practiced today by anyone in the Orthodox spectrum. Modern Orthodox, no matter how "modern", is still based on the development of the last few thousand years.

IOW, you end up creating a NEW branch of Judaism, by neccessity.

The Jewish Renewal movement, as first intended by R' Zalman Schecter, Gershon Winkler, Shlomo Carlebach, et al, was a similar attempt at "reclaiming" the original intent. See R' Zalman's [book] 'Paradigm Shift' for a discussion of how Judaism has changed direction several times over history, re-creating/re-imaging itself each time (the best example is Yavne, but you can make the same argument for the transition to a Temple-based form of practice).

The problems with creating a new movement are 1) numbers -- you need a large number of followers to create a movement; 2) recognition -- the Orthodox world will never accept such a movement, since it undermines the foundation on which it is built; 3) community -- closely related to #1, people need a community with which to practice their religion.

Just something to think about/blog about.

I guess I will have to agree. Not much chance of effecting any major changes to Orthodoxy in the current climate. The few people who tried ended up non-Orthodox, or outcasts, for example Yitz Greenberg. Still, I think its interesting to debate these issues , to imagine 'what if' and to continue to study and learn.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

What Do American Jews Believe?

Wow. No sooner had I suggested that Commentary magazine should do their survey of Jewish Belief again, I discovered that they did exactly that, in August 1996, almost 30 years to the day after the previous survey. This time the questions were a little different:

1. Do you believe in God? Do you believe the Torah to be divine revelation? Do you accept the binding nature of any, some, or all of the commandments?

2. In what sense do you believe the Jews are the chosen people of God? What is the distinctive role of the Jewish people in the world today? Of Jewish messianism?

3. How have, respectively, the Holocaust and the existence of the state of Israel influenced your faith, your religious identity, your observance?

4. In your judgment, which aspects of the contemporary American situation, including the political situation, offer the greatest stimulus to Jewish belief, and which pose the most serious challenge either to Jewish belief or to Jewish continuity?

5. What is your assessment of the current denominational and ideological divisions within American Judaism? To what degree are you worried about Jewish religious unity?

6. Do you see any prospect of a large-scale revival of Judaism in America?

More on this after I read it, but I see they asked some people I know. The Orthodox names I recognize are:

David Berger, Saul Berman, David Blumenthal, Barry Fruendel, Blu Greenberg, Norman Lamm, and Daniel Lapin. This time around, it seems they didn't ask any fundamentalists. A sign of the times ?

The State of Jewish Belief: Chaim Potok

This is a fascinating book. I just discovered that you can download the entire article that the book is based on from Commentary Magazine for $4.95, its in the August 1966 edition. It would be great if they could do this again, with similar questions, to contemporary thinkers. Here are Chaim Potok’s answers to the 5 questions. I picked Potok since he has somewhat of an Orthodox perspective, and I could relate to some of the things he said. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein is also in there, and some other Orthodox Rabbis too.

First, some brief biographical notes on Chaim Potok condensed from some other sites:

Chaim Potok, born Herman Harold Potok, was the son of Polish immigrants and was reared in an Orthodox Jewish home. He was born in February of 1929 in New York City, where he attended religious schools. However, as a young man he became fascinated by less restrictive Jewish doctrines, particularly the Conservative side of Judaism. He attended Yeshiva University and graduated summa cum laude in English literature in 1950 before moving on to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where he was ordained a Conservative rabbi. Potok then taught at several Jewish colleges, including the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, before moving on to become the managing editor of Conservative Judaism in 1964.

Potok spent a year in Israel completing his doctoral dissertation on philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania in 1965 and the following year he became the editor of the Jewish Publication Society of America, which he remained for eight years before becoming a special-projects editor of the publication in 1974. Throughout his career in publishing, Dr. Potok wrote numerous popular articles and reviews. He died in 1992. Despite his impressive religious and academic background, Chaim Potok will be best remembered as the author of numerous novels which centered around the Jewish experience in America and particularly the challenges facing those of the Orthodox and Hasidic faiths in trying to co-exist with each other and with non-Jews in a predominantly Christian society. His best known works are the two novels, "The Chosen" (1967) and "The Promise" (1969). The books follow the stories of two young Jewish boys, one secular and one from a Hasidic family, who become friends and often rivals.

Chaim Potok

Every theological endeavor is in essence a personal response to privately experienced tensions. Theology has its origins in the anguish that is felt when one's commitment to a particular religious model of reality is confronted by new knowledge and experiential data that threaten the root assumptions of the model. Thus it is the problems that are of paramount importance, for the problems generate and determine the nature of the tensions and become elemental strands of the fabric that forms the ultimate response. Further, the fruitfulness of a theological response is often a function of the extent to which the initial problems reflect the general tenor of one's own age; a 20th-century theologian preoccupied with 18th-century problems speaks only to ghosts of the past.

Until my late teens my religious model of the universe was essentially formed of a fundamentalist view of Judaism. As new knowledge began to accumulate along the periphery of the model-knowledge born of my encounter with the sciences and symbolic logic- I found myself confronted with the choice of having to alter some of the basic assumptions of the model, or of rejecting the new knowledge out of hand, thereby sealing off the model. For a variety of reasons, I chose the former course-and the model disintegrated. My Judaism hung in the balance for a long, anguished year, until in the end I made another choice. I chose to retain my Jewish pattern of behavior and at the same time to live suspended in a theological void until such time as I could construct another religious model and, motivated by an intense intellectual curiosity and by what I now believe was a real love for my people, I chose to make that effort from within Judaism. I wanted very much to understand the dynamics of Judaism, its shades and tones, its inner texture, the warp and woof of its commingling of principles, ideas, and. institutions. I gambled that once I had achieved that understanding I would be able to construct another model. There was no guarantee of success. There was only the commitment to make the attempt.

The problems that troubled me then have been resolved by the very disciplines-modern historiography and the scientific approach to the sacred texts of Judaism- which others regard as an open threat to religion. These disciplines are not an issue as far as I am concerned. They are the spectacles through which I study Jewish sources. They give the sources a form, a focus, a vitality which is impossible within a fundamentalist stance. They have made Judaism come alive for me, so that I can see it now from the inside outward.

Two things have resulted from this method of study. First, I have come to understand the unusual degree of sophistication that has gone into the shaping of Jewish source material and to realize that what best characterizes these sources is their almost obsessive preoccupation with the problem of meaning and structure. Secondly, I have come to reject completely any attempt to splinter the universe into separate domains of religion and science. I see only one world, one organic interweaving of the totality of the human experience, each element of which acts upon and reacts to every other element. Further, the theoretical scientist is as much governed by attitudinal commitments as he is by the laboratory experiments that test his constructs. And my attitudinal commitments, the commitments which form the essential fiber of my being and through which I structure reality, are as much affected by the findings of the sciences as they are by a new understanding of the nature of God. To splinter the world is to engage in 20th-century Zoroastrianism.

As a result of all this, there has come a decision on my part to forge a religious life out of what I call provisional absolutes. There is a tendency among some of the more advanced logicians today to view even the most hallowed of logical principles as potentially alterable in the face of impinging data. Though one's attitudinal existence is not altogether comparable to a system of logic, the analogy is not without significance- for I find it impossible to live an intellectually viable existence without at the same time accepting the working premise that I must constantly be prepared to alter my basic religious assumptions should the need arise. This constitutes for me an open-minded way of living along the frontiers of knowledge, where both the theologian and the scientist stumble together in the darkness, each committed to a given set of premises, each aware of the provisional nature of his absolutes, each eager for new knowledge even though the price paid for its acquisition might be the alteration or the abandonment of his absolutes. This is not the place to explain how one can be totally committed to provisional absolutes, for that would take us into a complex discussion concerning the nature of commitment. My answers to the questions, however, might give some indication as to how this can be accomplished.

1. In what sense do you believe the Torah to be divine revelation? Are all 613 commandments equally binding on the believing Jew? If not, how is he to decide which to observe? What status would you accord to ritual commandments lacking in ethical or doctrinal content (e.g., the prohibition against clothing made of linen and wool)?

The assertion that historical events or a body of doctrine are somehow linked to an ultimate ontological cause is an expression of the essential nature of the endless human attempt to find unity and meaning in the raw data of experience. Nothing is more typical of the collective Jewish mind, heart, and soul than the preoccupation with this endless search.

Biblical and Talmudic sources differ as to the precise nature of the events at Sinai. But the common denominator of these sources lends credence to the view that what they confront us with is a picture of a people voluntarily committing itself to a then unique and value-charged model of reality. (I say "voluntarily" despite the fact that there is at least one Talmudic source that indicates the contrary; it is, to my mind, an atypical view.) The commitment was renewed a number of times in subsequent generations. The only record we have of the first of these collective commitments is given to us in terms of the revelation at Sinai. There the Israelites felt that they had inextricably linked themselves and their way of life to God.

The Israelite model of reality developed out of the collective experience of the people. It had its origins some time in the misty, pre-desert-experience past, achieved a singular coherence under the leadership of Moses, and underwent further development during the period of the First and Second Commonwealths. It had sufficient latitude to permit a wide divergence of opinion insofar as its detailed theological and legalistic interpretations were concerned. The theology of the priests was not that of the prophets; the theology of the author of Koheleth (Ecclesiastes) was not that of the author of Job; and there are legalistic differences even within the Bible itself, together with a nebulousness as to the precise details involved in the actual working out of ritual prescriptions. These differences achieved a rich and fully orchestrated quality during the period of the Talmud when a complex variety of conflicting interpretations and traditions were able to coexist with a rather remarkable degree of harmony. This kind of coexistence, operating from a base of intelligence and commitment, I take to be the essential characteristic of a living and creative Jewish tradition.

All these differences of interpretation, however, have two characteristics in common: the commitment to a value-charged universe that is intrinsically meaningful, and the assumed need for a pattern of significant activity that can concretize this commitment and infuse it into the everyday activities of man. From this I draw the inevitable conclusion that mechanical religious acts go against the grain of Judaism, and commitments to meanings that are not translated into acts are essentially futile.

A ritual act which is not charged with meaning, which does not qualitatively enhance my existence, is drained of value and cannot become part of my acting-out pattern of religious behavior. This refers to all ritual, not only to the prohibition against clothing made of linen and wool. The criterion of selectivity is my own inner being, my own awareness of the fundamental principles underlying Jewish law, but the selection is always made-and this is a vital point from a base of knowledge and not out of ignorance or for reasons of personal convenience. Further, each separate act is embedded in its own separate contextual situation and involves a separate act of thinking. It is often an exhausting procedure, but the rewards seem infinite when real contact is made between value and act. It is the only way I know to live.

My claim that intrinsic meaning and the acting- out of this meaning are fundamental to Judaism is in the nature of a provisional absolute. If for some reason I ever became convinced that it was untrue, it would be discarded and the entire structure of my religious thinking would be subjected to alteration.

2. In what sense do you believe that the Jews are the chosen people of God? How do you answer the charge that this doctrine is the model from which various theories of national and racial superiority have been derived?

As a quasi-empirical inductive hypothesis with a rather limited range of probability, the notion of chosenness might be used to account for the perplexing question of the continued existence and vitality of the Jewish people. We choose to be chosen by linking our lives to the history and destiny of our people. Each generation must make its own commitment based upon whatever it finds in Judaism. We continue to exist only by virtue of these renewed commitments. And we do not choose to be racially superior- a notion that would have been absurd to the prophets and the rabbis of the Talmud had they ever conceived of it. We choose to be the bearers of a tradition which we feel enhances human existence. It is an assumption of responsibility, not superiority. That the notion of chosenness may have been the basis for various theories of national and racial superiority indicates to me nothing more than that all ideas are potentially corruptible when taken up by small minds. That does not mean that those with great minds should cease thinking.

3. Is Judaism the one true religion, or is it one of several true religions? Does Judaism still have something distinctive-as it once had monotheism-to contribute to the world? In the ethical sphere, the sphere of ben adam la-chavero, what distinguishes the believing Jew from the believing Christian, Moslem, or Buddhist-or, for that matter, from the unbelieving Jew and the secular humanist?

Judaism is one configuration of thought and action. There are many others. Judaism is the responsibility of the Jew. As such, it makes no claim to being the only source of salvation for the world. Its sole criterion for the worth of one who is not Jewish is whether or not he observes the universally applicable Noahide Code. Such observance, in the talmudic terminology of approbation, makes the non- Jew worthy of the world-to-come. Some of the rabbis of the Talmud went even further: a moral non-Jew is more worthy in the eyes of God than a sinful high priest.

Those Jews who are not fearful of coping with realities still have a great deal to say from a position within Judaism to a 20th-century world that is grappling with the problems of meaning and meaningful behavior. It may well be that much of 20thcentury humanism has caught up to the basic values of Judaism. I am not fearful of that development; I embrace it-and make my commitment to join in the attempt to forge new Jewish ideas. I am as much a part of the future of my people as I am of its past.

What is universal to all men is held in common by all religions. Buddha, too, enjoined his followers to love their neighbors. But the behavior patterns which embody ideas and the subordinate ideas which flow from the universal ones are essentially particularistic and the result of a complex conjunction of forces and events. The richness and complexity that characterize the totality of human culture constitute the greatest gift each generation gives to its youth. Any idea that enhances my being is openly accepted. My criterion for enhancement is the totality of what I am at the moment of contact; one knows soon enough whether or not a new idea will be a grain of sand br a flood of light. But I very much want Judaism to remain a vital element in the pool of human culture because of what I take to be its intrinsic worth. In the end I am a Jew, and it is as a Jew that I choose to serve the world.

4. Does Judaism as a religion entail any particular political viewpoint? Can a man be a good Jew and yet, say, support racial segregation? Can a man be a good Jew and be a Communist? A Fascist?

In the rabbinic tradition, the purpose of government is to maintain harmony, keep the peace, administer justice, and thereby restrict man's aggressive nature. The yardstick for the evaluation of a government is ethical, not political. The essential criterion is its degree of conformity to certain basic ethical principles. There is no commitment to a specific political economic governmental structure. A government is a good government if its people regard it with respect and if it acts in behalf of the people with care and concern and with a consciousness of their needs and welfare. Further, it must not be forced upon the people but brought into existence at the request of the people. Finally, its leadership must be subject to the same laws as the people. A Fascist government would have been an abomination in the eyes of the rabbis of the Talmud. Communist governments do not seem to follow a single pattern and each would have to be separately investigated in the light of the above criteria. But Communism's general commitment to materialism and to an economic dialectic of history would have repelled the rabbis.

5. Does the so-called "God is dead" question which has been agitating Christian theologians have any relevance to Judaism? What aspects of modern thought do you think pose the most serious challenge to Jewish belief?

I regard Nietzsche's assertion that God is dead as having been more in the nature of an anguished empirical observation than a peremptory, categorical statement. In his contacts with human beings Nietzsche saw that man's basic day-to-day decision-making apparatus was in no way related to his worship of a living God. To assert God and to conduct one's life without Him is for all intents and purposes to make the claim that God is dead. For Nietzsche, the term "God" in the proposition "God is dead" was meant to designate intrinsic meaning.

Now, if by the term "God" in the proposition "God is dead" present-day theologians mean to designate an anthropomorphic deity, an old man with a long, white beard who dwells in some distant heaven, then this statement has little relevance to Judaism, for the essential vitality of Judaism is not dependent upon such a notion of God. If, however, they mean that the universe is in its very essence totally blind and meaningless, then their assertion has considerable relevance. For it is the problem of meaning that constitutes the root problem of our age. Out of the 19th-century came man's awareness of his model-making activity. For the first time we were able to achieve a kind of overview of the way we structure reality. The result of this knowledge was the casting out of man from his Eden of absolutes. Thus we are at grips today with an ultimate ontological problem: Is meaning real and intrinsic or fictitious and extrinsic? There does not seem to be any way at present of resolving this problem, for we are not dealing here with facts but with attitudes. Judaism, obsessed as it is with the search for meaning, a search that has engaged not only its leaders but its people as well, takes its stand on the side of an ontologically meaningful universe, a qualitatively significant universe charged with value. When the human being can live his life without the trauma of severe stress situations, this seems a plausible enough position to assert. But in moments of chaos, when normalcy disintegrates and man becomes a feather tossed about in seemingly blind storms, the mind collapses. Man then faces a choice. He can extend the pockets of meaninglessness to the universe at large and claim that all existence is absurd, or he can by dint of his own efforts engage in a search for meaning and seek to find some significance in seeming meaninglessness. Judaism makes the second choice.

The assertion of emptiness, blindness, essential meaninglessness as an inherent characteristic of the totality of things seems to me to be an inadequate response for there is after all much around us that has apparent meaning. I would rather live in what I take to be a meaningful world and be staggered by moments of apparent absurdity than in an absurd world and be troubled by instances of meaning. I would rather try to discover some light in the patches of darkness than extend the darkness to wherever there is now light.

The notion that the universe is intrinsically meaningful is, for me, a provisional absolute. At the present stage of my thinking I am thoroughly committed to that absolute. Were this commitment ever to be shaken, the entire structure of my thought would have to be reshaped and my pattern of religious acting-out might well undergo alteration. For I am also committed to the notion that theology and behavior must be organically related. A theology that is not linked directly to a pattern of behavior is a blowing of wind and a macabre game with words. And a pattern of behavior that is not linked to a system of thought is an instance of religious robotry.

This is my personal response to my privately experienced tensions.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Rav Amital and common sense

From this article on Rav Amital:

As a "simple Jew," his worldview is based on basic feelings and on common sense more than on a precise theological doctrine. Indeed, not only is he ideologically opposed to phenomena reflecting extreme religious severity - he also mocks them.

I can relate to that. A good dose of common sense is more valuable than knowing bookloads of Rishonim and Acharonim. Not that that is of no value, of course it is. But common sense trumps it.

Kabalah Clowns

So what do I really think of Kabalah ?

Here is my theory on Kabalah and Jewish Mysticism in general, based on years of extensive research. OK, to be honest, I read ‘Major Trends In Jewish Mysticism’ and that’s about it. Oh and also that article in Vanity Fair about the Kabalah Center. And I used to follow Madonna’s exploits in And my Rabbi is quite a big fan of Jewish mysticism. And I once had a weird ESP thing going on with a girl I dated, but I guess that’s not really kabalah. (Or is it ?). Anyway, here’s the theory:

Jews have always had a nack for ethical monotheism and spirituality. Everyone else who tried it ended up going off the derech. The Christians just couldn’t keep it pure, they had to start with the Trinity and Jesus being G-d and all that. The Moslems went off the deep end with extremism. (However bad some of our leaders might be, that’s nothing compared to the mullahs, so be grateful.) Nobody does religion better than the Jews.

So, you have this religion which is incredibly good with thinking about G-d, and being spiritual and all that. The problem is, the Tenach and the Talmud are just not that mystical. The only exception is the Maaseh Merkavah, hence it’s no surprise that the first Jewish Mysticism was centered on that. However, after that fad faded, what else was left ?

A natural inclination for at least some percentage of the population (probably not me) is to be mystical. So, what to do if you’re Jewish, mystically inclined but have a limited tradition? Well, Jews did what they have always done. They take the mundane and make it spiritual. They take from the world around them and make it holy. They take Polytheistic Mythology and turn it into Ethical Monotheistic Mythology. They take Goyish Mysticism and turn it into Jewish Mysticism.

Hence the Jews, heavily influenced by Christian, Suffi and New Age mysticism, take these same ideas, but improve on them by changing them to Ethical Monotheistic Mysticism. Is it Torah MiSinai ? I doubt it (but maybe I could be convinced). But is it authentically Jewish ? Absolutely. Is it holy ? Certainly, as it represents the strivings of Jews to relate to G-d, and that can’t be a bad thing. And that goes for Phillip Berg too. He may be a Kabalah Clown, but he’s a Jewish Kabalah Clown.

A Vision of Odyssey’s Glory

In my thirtieth year, on the fifteenth day of the sixth month, while I was among the exiles by the Hudson River, the West Side Highway cleared and I saw visions of Odyssey. As I watched, I saw a windstorm coming from the north—an enormous cloud surrounded by bright light. In the fire was what looked like a chariot, seating four living beings.

The beings at the front had faces like the faces of adults. But the beings at the back had faces like the appearance of children. The chariot had four wheels, and as the driver pressed the accelerator, so the chariot moved forward. At each corner of the chariot was a wheel, and each wheel had a rim. Their rims were high and awesome and the rims of all four wheels were made of alloy all around.

When the chariot moved, the wheels under it moved; when the living beings moved along the ground, the wheels moved too. Wherever the driver would go, they would go. When the living beings moved, the wheels moved, and when they stopped moving, the wheels stopped.

Over the heads of the living beings was something like a moonroof, glittering awesomely like glass stretched out over their heads. Each of the beings also had wireless headsets, since it was an Odyssey with a Rear Entertainment System. When they removed their headsets, I heard the sound of their stereo system —it was like the sound of rushing waters, or the voice of JM in the AM. When they stopped moving, the driver lowered his window, he had the likeness of the appearance of someone who is lost. He spoke in an awesome voice, and asked ‘Which way to 96th street ?’

OK, so that was kind of silly. But the haftorah for first day Shavuos was cray-zeee. What the heck is it all about ? I guess you are not supposed to think about it unless you are on the appropriate level, which I clearly am not. Still, the maaseh merkavah was apparently the foundation for early Jewish mysticism, or so says Gershon Sholem. According to the fundies of course, all mysticism was given at Har Sinai, and not at all influenced by the Gnostics and Christians, chas vesholom.

However skeptical I am about some aspects of TSBK and TSBP, that’s nothing compared to how skeptical I am about kabbalah and the like. At least with TSBP there is a clear mesorah of fairly similar halachah going back over 2000 years. With mysticism, there are a number of different fads, probably depending on what the goyim were into at the time.

In the 5th century, it was all about the merkavah. Then in the 8th century, everyone was going on about shiur komah, and how big G-d’s feet were. In the 10th century, angels were all the range, you know, Metatron, Megatron, Donatello and Michaelangelo, which was not at all influenced by the Christian obsession with angels, which peaked at about that time.

By the 12th century, the Zohar had been (just) written, and it was all about R Shimon Bar Yochai traipsing round the Galilee with his merry band of disciples, and was not at all influenced by stories of Jesus, traipsing round the Galilee with his merry band of disciples, oh no. Chas vesholom ! Then comes the 16th century and Lurianic Kabbalah, whatever the heck that is.

Nowadays we have Phillip Berg and the Kabbalah Center, which is of course ‘non authentic’ kabbalah. Shame on you Phillip. Jewish Kabbalah ? Whoever heard of such a thing ! You should have stolen it from the goyim like everyone else !

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Thoughts on the Existence of God

Paul Johnson,

Of all the fundamentalist groups at large in the world today, the Darwinians seem to me the most objectionable. They are just as strident and closed to argument as Christian or Muslim fundamentalists, but unlike those two groups the Darwinians enjoy intellectual respectability.

Darwinians and their allies dominate the scientific establishments of the West. They rule the campus. Their militant brand of atheism makes them natural allies of the philosophical atheists who control most college philosophy faculties. They dominate the leading scientific magazines and prevent their critics and opponents from getting a hearing, and they secure the best slots on TV. Yet the Darwinian brand of evolution is becoming increasingly vulnerable as the progress of science reveals its weaknesses. One day, perhaps soon, it will collapse in ruins.

Weak Underpinnings

Few people today doubt the concept of evolution as such. What seems mistaken is Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection, whereby species evolve by infinitesimally small stages. Neither Darwin nor any of his followers--nor his noisy champions today--was a historian. None of them thought of time historically or made their calculations chronologically. Had they done so, they'd have seen that natural selection works much too slowly to fit into the time line allowed by the ages of the universe and our own planet. The process must somehow have been accelerated in jumps or by catastrophes or outside intervention.

There are five other weaknesses the Darwinians cannot explain away either. The best summary of these can be found in Richard J. Bird's Chaos and Life (Columbia University Press), page 53. Warning: This book is tough going but will reward the persistent.

If the theory of natural selection is incorrect, then the Darwinians' view that there is no need or place for God in the universe is itself weakened, though not necessarily overthrown. Physics, however, increasingly tends to suggest that there is a God role, particularly with regard to the origin of the universe. We now know this occurred about 13.7 billion years ago, and our knowledge of what happened immediately afterward is becoming increasingly detailed, down to the last microsecond.

Few now doubt there was a Big Bang. We know when it occurred and what followed. But we are just as far as ever from understanding why it happened or what--or who--caused it. Indeed, all calculations about the Big Bang are based on the assumption that nothing preceded it. It took place in an infinite vacuum. There was no process of ignition, or traces of it would have been left. Hence, this fundamental happening in history seems to conflict with all the laws of physics and our notions of how the universe operates. It was an event without a cause.

It also produced something out of nothing. More: It produced everything out of nothing. The expansion of the universe has proceeded ever since, and all the creative processes involved in it--including Earth and homo sapiens--were written into the laws laid down in that first tremendous explosion. We do not have to believe in an entirely deterministic universe to see that the first microsecond of history foreshadowed everything that has followed over the last 13-plus billion years.

If the laws of physics cannot explain how and why this event occurred, we must invoke metaphysics. And that means some kind of divine force. I've been rereading what Sir Isaac Newton wrote about God in the second edition of his Principia (1713). Newton saw God not as a perfect being--or any kind of being at all--but as a power, what he termed a "dominion." "We reverence and adore Him on account of His dominion," he wrote. This power was exercised "in a manner not at all human … in a manner utterly unknown to us." Newton knew God only through His works. "He is utterly void of all body and bodily figure, and can therefore neither be seen, nor heard, nor touched." Our knowledge of Him is limited "by His most wise and excellent contrivances of things."

"... and the Word Was God"

This notion of God as an impersonal power or force, wholly outside the laws of physics, fits with the role assigned him as author of the Big Bang. And since that primal event there has been no need of further intervention by God in the affairs of the universe.

Or has there? I've also been reading Guy Deutscher's The Unfolding of Language (Metropolitan Books) and reflecting on the nature of words. Speech is the greatest of man's inventions and the mother of all others. Yet, in truth, nobody invented it. Its emergence and evolution proceeded in ways that are still almost a total mystery. It is as close to a miracle as anything associated with human beings.

Both the Hebrews and the Greeks, in different ways, believed there was something divine about "the word," or logos. The Greeks thought the word was the abstract principle of reason exhibited by an orderly universe. The Jews thought it the image of God, the beginning and origin of all things. It is possible, then, that the giving of the word to humanity was the second intervention of the metaphysical force or dominion in the process of history. That, I think, is the conclusion I have come to in these difficult matters. What will be the third, I wonder?

Hat Tip: Amshinover

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Fundamentalism is: Confusing Peshat with Derash

Longtime readers of my blog will remember the numerous times that chareidi fundamentalists have come here and loudly proclaimed that something was mefurash a pasuk, only for it to turn out that it was in fact a midrash.

One example that springs to mind was when one commentator (Frumteen or Lawrence, I can't remember which) stated that the Torah explicitly claimed it was all written by G-d. Of course the Torah does no such thing. There are numerous other examples too, that I have seen here, on DovBear and on Hirhurim.

I recently made the same mistake in reverse, on this Hirhurim post confusing a pasuk for a midrash. Of course the extremists wasted no time in dragging me through the mud for it. Can't blame them I suppose, I would have done the same.

The question is, why do so many frum people confuse midrashim, most of which are clearly allegorical, with basic peshat in the Torah ? Is this caued by commentators like Rashi frequently bringing midrashim down ? By too much reading of Little Midrash Says ? By not learning chumash past Day School ? By the whole TBSP and TBSK duality ? By simply having no sense of skepticism whatsoever ? Isn't it about time that people realized that midrashim are just that - explanations offered by various Rabbi's attempting to explain peshat, but not a mesorah misinai ?

In a similar vein, DovBear has an example of Rashi getting peshat in a Gemarah wrong. Some commentors blasted him for not respecting Rashi enough. As one small minded fundamentalist put it: 'Rashi was way beyond our finite ant minds'. But I don't think that was DovBear's point. Rashi, though great, was not infallible. None of the commentators were. They saw problems with the texts, they attempted to give answers. Sometimes they were right. Sometimes they were wrong. Often they were being allegorical. Treating every Jewish word ever printed as 'Halachah Lemoshe MiSinai' and/or literal/historical fact (except of course when 'our' Gedolim deem it to be kefirah) is a sickness.

The end result of this sickness is that most people can't distinguish historical pesukim, allegorical pesukim, historical midrashim, allegorical midrashim or anything else. Its all just one big mush. And once you start being skeptical, the whole mush gets thrown out the window. Its not that they throw out the baby with the bathwater, its that the baby has been in the bathwater so long that the two have become an indistinguishable goop.

Not being able to discern fact from fiction is yet another reason why we have kollels full of 'learned' people, and yet many some of them are still fools. Its a shame really, because we take some of our (potentially) best and brightest and turn them into blithering idiots. What a waste. Its much easier to be a blithering idiot without having to learn all that knowledge first. And I should know.

Fundamentalism is: Never having to say 'let me think about it'

Frumteens, in a long polemic against doing anything other than sitting and learning, says:

Every single extra little kid - or adult - that learns every single little extra line of Gemora changes the world for the better.

This is a perfect example of Fundamentalism. My Rav explains that Fundamentalism is not being extra frum, or taking the Torah literally, or similar. Fundamentalism is the simplistic trumpeting of one value above all else. Fundamentalism is the inability to realize that at all times there are always a number of competing and often contradictory values in play, and one must make intelligent decisions between them.

Life is complex. Judasim is complex. Fundamentalists have difficulty with that, so they like to keep things simple. That would be a reasonable approach if all Fundamentalists were born morons. But some of them aren't, so its a shame.

The really ironic thing though, is that many of these people, on the basis of the fact that they are able to recite various Gemara's, midrashim or rishonim by heart, think they actually have some sechel. They confuse knowledge with intelligence. One can be knowledgeable on a tremendous amount of sources, but still be a fool, as these fundamentalists and their Rebbeim prove time and again.

The Burden of Skepticism

From a Carl Sagan article:

It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you're in deep trouble.

If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) But every now and then, maybe once in a hundred cases, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress.

On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful as from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all.

Skepticism is healthy, without it we would be fools, losing all our money to the first confidence trickster (or meshulach) we meet. However, too much skepticism is a sickness too, requiring you to discard much of what is valuable in life and religion. What's the correct balance ? Is Mis-nagid too skeptical ? Is Lawrence not skeptical enough ? Am I at just the right level ?

I guess the frum answer is as follows: You should be as skeptical as the Gedolim tell you to be.

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The instruction manual 'proof'

Hot on the heels of all those bad ‘Sinai’ proofs comes the ‘Torah is the instruction manual’ proof. It goes something like this:

When you buy a washing machine, or a DVD Player, it comes with an instruction manual. Life is so much more complex than a DVD player (unless you own an ONKYO of course), do you really think G-d would have created the world, but not given us an instruction manual ? Of course not. The Torah is that instruction manual.

I can think of at least 3 reasons why this argument is not that great:

1. The instruction manual was only given out about 2,500 years after mankind was created (alternatively about 40,000 years after Homo Sapiens came into existence, or maybe 1 million years after Homo Whatever appeared). Where were the instructions before then ? I suppose it would have been difficult to give the Torah before writing was invented, (though we could have gotten Torah Shebaal Peh har-de-har.) The story of Noach gives the impression that G-d was unhappy with his creation because the world had descended into sin. But nowhere has G-d really given anyone any instructions yet (except pru urvu).

2. If I were G-d, and was writing the instruction manual for life the universe and everything, here is how I would structure it.

Instruction Manual for Life
By G-d

Congratulations on being the owner of a new 2005 Human Body, V6.0 ™, with integrated Life. We trust you will be very happy with your new Body and Life, which should give you many years of enjoyable, trouble free service. Please be sure to carefully read this instruction manual from start to finish. Your Body has been carefully constructed to high quality standards. Should any problems occur, please do not hesitate to Pray (see Ch 8).

Ch1: About G-d, inc.
Ch2: Why you were created
Ch3: Your goals in life
Ch4: Rules and regulations
Ch5: Life events and how to deal with them
Ch6: What happens after Death
Ch7: Troubleshooting
Ch8: Customer Service a.k.a Prayer
Ch9: Warranty Information

As a certain skeptic once said, why would G-d waste space talking about haircuts (or genealogies, or travel itineraries) ? The Torah contains very little of Chapters 1, 2 or 3. A fair amount of 4. Not much about 5. Nothing on 6. Some on 7. Very little on 8. And there is no warranty. If any parts are missing or defective, tough.

3. If by definition, a G-d would create an instruction manual for life, wouldn’t that G-d give the instruction manual to everybody ? Why would it be the exclusive domain of a tiny fraction of the world’s population ? It’s true we popularized it quite well, but only the main themes. We have hardly popularized Torah Shebaal Peh and Halachah, nor are we supposed to.

I'm not denying that the Torah is THE instruction manual (at least for Jews), however I don't think it's neccessarily the way it HAD to be. Life is strange with many mysteries, it's quite feasible to imagine a world where figuring out the instructions was just one more mystery to be solved. In fact, most people would say thats exactly the world we do live in.

The story so far ...

For those people who are a bit late to the party (like Chana- ‘Why don’t people like you, Mis-nagid?’), here are the last few months, highly summarized:

Rabbi Slifkin: It’s okay to take the Torah non-literally when it conflicts with Science (gasp). Oh, and by the way, did you know that Chazal were often wrong about science too ? (double gasp)

- 2 years later -

The Kannoim: OMG OMG ! Burn him, stone him ! That’s terrible, OMG OMG !

The Gedolim: Kefirah ! Forbidden ! Chas Vesholom ! You’re banned mate !

The jBloggers (not Gil): Liars, fools, destroyers of Judaism ! We support Slifkin, hurrah !

Cross Currents: A web site on Orthodox Judaism is not the place to discuss issues such as these.

Toby Katz: Slifkin ! The Gedolim ! Slifkin ! The Gedolim ! Arrrrggh.

R E Feldman: A Baal Teshuvah ‘friend’ of mine doesn’t like the Chareidim or the Modern Orthodox. What should I tell him ?

Mis-nagid: It’s a cult ! A cult ! Its all baloney ! A cult !

Rav Moshe Shternbuch: Scientists are just atheist reshoim, every man woman and child knows that.

The Great Clownofsky (Draft): Slifkin is a scumbag, but the Gedolim are The Gedolim, so they must be right !

The Godol Hador: You’re a scumbag, and these are not the only Gedolim.

The Great Clownofsky (2nd Draft): These Gedolim are Gedolim, so they must be respected.

The Godol Hador: You’re still a scumbag, sorry.

Mis-nagid: It’s a cult ! A cult ! Its all baloney ! A cult !

Gil Student: Rishonim, Acharonim and more Rishonim. And some Acharonim too.

DovBear: Politics, blah blah, The Tiferes Yisroel ! The pope, blah blah. The pope. Politics. And the pope. Oh, did I mention the pope ?

Rav Moshe Shapiro: Slifkin is a kofer. Maybe he isn’t. Yes he is !

The Godol Hador: Does Rav Moshe Shapiro know what he is talking about ?

Rav Heshy Grossman: I challenge you to a debate you kofer, anytime, any place !

The Godol Hador: Send me your explanation of Rav Moshe’s views.

Rav Heshy Grossman: (Silence)

HAGTBG: I’m frum. I’m a skeptic. Nobody understands me. Me neither.

Tafkaa: The DH is a bunch of baloney

Orthoprax & Mis-nagid: No it isn’t

Tafkaa: Oh yes it is.

Mis-nagid: It’s a cult ! A cult ! Its all baloney ! A cult !

Bluke: How can you possibly explain miracles from a natural point of view ?

The Godol Hador, DovBear: Easy peasy. Here’s how.

Everyone else: You kofrim ! You’ve gone too far this time.

The Godol Hador: No fair, Bluke dared me !

ConservativeApikores: I’m Conservative. I’m an Apikores.

Everyone else: What’s the chiddush ?

Frumteens: Slifkin is a scumbag. And so are the Modern Orthodox. And Zionists.

Everyone else: OMG ! Extreme Satmar ideology being preached to innocent teenagers ! And by an anonymous and somewhat dubious figure !

R Adlerstein: I like Frumteens.

Everyone else: OMG ! Are you nuts ?

R Adlerstein: Oooops, maybe I made a mistake.

Mis-nagid: It’s a cult ! A cult ! Its all baloney ! A cult !

Steve Brizel: FWIW, IMHO RYBS’s TEOEM AFAIK has all the answers

The Godol Hador: The kannoim are all criminals and liars and here is why.

Amshi: imtoobusyforpunctuationbuttropperisabookwormandpinterisharmless

The Godol Hador: My father in law is a swell guy for treating me to a Pesach hotel.

Shifrah: So funny, I had to close my office door.

Orthomom: Hi guys !

Bishel akum: Hi orthomom !

Shiur Chodosh: *censored*

The Godol Hador: Lets all be rational religious !

Conservative Apikores: Welcome to my world !

The Godol Hador: Ooops. That’s just Conservative Judaism. Never mind.

The Rebbetzin Hador: Will you quit that darn blog already !

The Godol Hador: Okay honey. Bye everybody !

AddeRabbi: Me too. Byeee !

The Brooklyn Wolf: Oh goodeee, more traffic !

DovBear: Yippeee, more traffic !

Orthoprax: Hurrah, more traffic !

- 2 weeks later-

The Godol Hador: I’m baaaaack.

Boruch Luchinkup: The Torah is literal but imprecise.

The Godol Hador: That makes no sense, Lokshen Brains.

Boruch Luchinkup: Does too, Noodle Hador. Okay, it doesn’t. But the Torah was architected for multiple non-literal interpretations.

The Godol Hador: That makes no sense, LokshenBrains.

Kugel Kiruv

Although we have spent much time poking fun at the Kiruv Clowns, in truth I don’t really believe that the ‘philosophy’ of the Kiruv Clowns is really that influential in being mekarev rechokim (though it is quite effective in being merachek kerovim). In my experience, most of the Baal Teshuva’s (BT’s) I have known became religious through what I call ‘Kugel Kiruv’.

Rather than fancy philosophical arguments, Discovery style ‘Sinai Proofs’, or deep theological discussions, the potential BT is invited to a shabbos meal, and marvels at the joy, the spirituality, the close family ties, the warmth, the lack of generation gap, the shared values and of course, the kugel, cholent and roast chicken.

In fact, I recently saw an article on kiruv which stated ‘the way to be mekarev nowadays is with: cholent, vodka and Carelebach...’

I would suggest a number of reasons for this:

1. Many (but not all) BT’s are people looking for something. If the potential BT had a great life, fulfilling personal relationships and a warm and loving community, I think it unlikely that they would be looking to make any drastic changes to their lifestyle. In my experience, most (but not all) BT’s are people from broken homes, or lonely lives, or are in some way ‘unfulfilled’. These people are not looking for intellectual comfort, but emotional comfort.

2. Most people make life changing decisions (or even many other decisions) based on emotions, rather than on intellect. Although we all like to think that our intellect and reason drive us, in most cases it’s really our emotions driving our reason. (This applies to skeptics too, but that’s another post). Therefore, appealing to the emotions is a much more powerful way of doing kiruv.

3. The intellectual arguments for becoming Orthodox are really not that great. Problems abound, with Science & Torah, History & Torah, Archeology & Torah etc etc. Often, one has to appeal to ‘Emunah Peshuttah’, which is not a very strong argument when you are trying to be mekarev someone. Appealing to the emotions is easier.

4. The rationality behind the emotions and senses is actually quite strong. In other words, the experience of a nice Shabbos meal in a nice frum home is real. There really is a strong family bond, there really is a sense of warmth, there really is a strong sense of shared values. These are all hard to find in the outside world. Someone recently said to me that we are fooling ourselves, Christian Evangelicals could also create a ‘warm and fuzzy’ atmosphere. However I have my doubts.

To me, one of the biggest ‘proofs’ for Orthodoxy is precisely its power to still create such admirable communities and families, something sorely lacking in the outside world. This is ‘proof’ enough in my mind that we are onto something, and quite rightly should be the biggest draw for would be BT’s.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Judaism: Unique in the Ancient World (and in the Modern world too)

The following is also from RDr Gottleib's article, Living Up to the Truth. This, in my opinion, is far more convincing than the poorly constructed Sinai proofs. He says, Judaism is unique, and here is why:

Ancient Jewish history comprises at the very least 1000 years from the time of King David to the destruction of the second Temple. (This much will be admitted by all; the prior 800 years from the time of the patriarchs is controversial in secular sources and will thus be omitted here.) For approximately ninety percent of this period, i.e. for all but the exile in Babylon, there was a large concentration of Jewish population and an independent Jewish state in the land of Israel. (Of course, “independence” allows for significant pressure from empires like Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, etc.) What is striking about this period is the unparalleled uniqueness of Jewish belief.

Principles shared by virtually every ancient culture contrast sharply with Jewish sources. The general agreement among other cultures is due to two factors. First, their beliefs reflect common circumstances (the constants in the human condition in the ancient world - birth, death, war and peace, dependence upon poorly understood natural phenomena, etc.). Second, cultures in contact affect one another: ideas are borrowed and mutually modified. Judaism is assumed to have shared the first factor with all other cultures, and its geographical position (“the crossroads of three continents”) made it extraordinarily susceptible to the second. Its uniqueness is thus very difficult to explain. What follows are six examples of distinctive Jewish beliefs.

  1. Monotheism

Polytheistic idolatry is the rule in ancient religions. The restriction of worship to a single deity is almost unknown. The reason is simple: natural phenomena are so disparate that they are inevitably assigned to different deities, and then each of those deities must be served or else the natural forces under their control will injure the errant community. The uncompromising commitment of Judaism to one G-d only is without substantive parallel in the ancient world.

  1. Exclusivity

Each ancient nation had its own pantheon of gods. But each recognized the appropriateness of other nations worshipping its own pantheon. The universalism, and consequent exclusivity of Judaism are absent from ancient religions3. Thus, aside from Antiochus’ attempt to eliminate Judaism, there are no religious wars in the ancient. world4! When one country conquered another the second was usually required to acknowledge the chief god of the conqueror, and the conquered were usually happy to comply: the very fact that they lost the war proved that the others’ chief god was very powerful. The rest of the religion of the conquered nation was left intact. Only the Jews proclaimed a universal and exclusive concept of deity: our G-d is the only one, all others are fantasy.

  1. Spirituality

Ancient religions associated gods very closely with physical objects and/or phenomena. The “god of the sun” is the sun, as god, and so with the moon, the sea, the lightening bolt, etc. The same holds for physical processes like fertility, life and death. The only ancient religion to declare that G-d has no physical embodiment, form or likeness is Judaism.

  1. G-d as absolute

Ancient religions picture the gods as limited in power. Many start with a genealogy of the gods. That means that certain powers predate them and are out of their control. Only Judaism understands G-d as the creator of all that exists and completely unlimited in His power over creation.

  1. Morality

The gods of the ancient world are pictured as petty tyrants acting out their all-too-human desires in conflict with men and with one another. Aside from taboo actions which sometimes overlap with moral concerns, no condition of absolute moral perfection applies to those gods. Only the Jewish G-d is defined as meeting that description.

  1. Anti-homosexuality

All ancient cultures permitted some forms of homosexuality, and for many it had religious application. The only exception is Judaism which opposed all forms of homosexuality, whether religious or merely hedonistic. To ancient cultures, these Jewish beliefs appeared absurd. They contradicted the common experience and convictions of all mankind. Maintaining them branded Jews as quixotic outcasts. The historical problem is to explain how a people originated and preserved so extreme a set of beliefs without being overwhelmed by the unanimous consensus of all other nations.

This problem cannot be solved by appeal to the general success of Jewish cultural achievement. The Jewish nation did not enjoy any outstanding secular success which could have served as the means of preserving Judaism. There was no far-flung Jewish empire, no revolutionary innovations in mathematics, medicine, economics, architecture, the arts, philosophy etc. Had there been such, we might have explained the survival of Judaism as a mere accompaniment of an otherwise successful society.

One final characteristic of ancient Judaism must be noted. Throughout the ancient period Jews experimented with other forms of religious belief and practice. The prophets testify to Jewish idol worship. (This must be understood as syncretism: not an abandonment of Judaism in toto but an amalgamation to local conditions. “The Jewish G-d took us out of Egypt, so He is very powerful, so of course we celebrate Passover. However, if you want your garden to prosper, a sacrifice to the local baal will help!”) During the Babylonian exile a significant percentage of Jews intermarried and adapted their beliefs to the Babylonian milieu. When Greek culture became dominant in the Middle East many Jews became Hellenized. During the end of the second Temple, the Sadducees rejected the traditional Oral Law and substituted their own adaptations of Jewish practice. Needless to say, all these efforts eventually failed. Thus the survival of Judaism stands in contrast with those competing Jewish cultural forms which expired.


Jewish belief was unique in the ancient world in its commitment to monotheism, the exclusive, spiritual, absolute and moral concept of G-d, and opposition to homosexuality. This unique belief survived in spite of continuous contact with powerful foreign cultures, and was not the result of other Jewish cultural successes. Jewish experiments with modifications of the traditional formula disappeared.

This is all part of a larger argument that RDr Gottleib makes, that there is no rational explanation for Jewish History and Survival, hence G-d & Sinai. Skeptics will no doubt call this a type of 'G-d of the historical gaps' argument, or an 'Appeal to Incredulity', however what's wrong with that ? In the absence of any other reasonable explanation, I will go for G-d.

Good Yom Tov !

The world's worst Sinai proof ?

If you thought RDr Gottleib's Sinai proof was bad, this one is even worse. I found it on Gil's favorite site, (not to be confused with The last paragraph is the kicker.

How do we know that 600,000 people saw the event? The logic for that fact seems circular- we trust the document as a historical fact because so many people witnessed an event in it, yet the very proof in how we know so many people saw the event, is from the document itself!

Let us define “circular reasoning”: a person claiming his diploma to be authentic, and affords but one proof: his diploma. Here, the “proof” is equal to the object he attempts to prove. To validate his diploma, records must be found at the institution of his claimed attendance, or similar, external proof. By definition, when one wishes to validate anything, the validation must be external to that which one desires to validate. For example, if one tells airport security to accept his word that he is who he says he is, that would be circular as well. A passport proves an identity. The passport is external to the person, and is a valid proof.

What about history? How can we prove it? If one wishes to use the very recorded story as a proof, it would appear this too is circular reasoning. However, there is one major difference: the verification of any historical account - is in fact the account! I will explain. Provided the account is universally identical, accepted by masses, and describes intelligible phenomena, the story must be true. There is no possible means by which a universally identical history would arrive in our hands today, had these factors not been present at the time of that event at hand. From example, one could not successfully convince others of explosions on the George Washington Bridge at rush hour, unless they actually occurred. Too many witnesses would deny a fabrication, and no one but the perpetrator would promote the fallacy. The story would never succeed, and certainly, not be recorded in history.

History is the one thing that derives its validation from its very existence, provided all mentioned factors form part of the story. This is why Sinai is not circular reasoning, and its very existence is its proof. We learn that “circular reasoning”, like all other concepts, must be defined, and when it is, all errors are removed. We thereby know that 600,000 (men above 20 – approx. 2 million total) witnesses attended Sinai.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Boruch, our favorite consultant, has a new theory. The Torah is no longer 'Literal but imprecise'. No ! Now, its 'specifically architected to enable multiple interpretations'. Amazing ! Just by taking words non-literally, you can come up with different meanings ! Thats incredible.

Of course, this can't be done with any regular text, oh no. Only with a text that has been 'specifically architected' can this method work. Mamash amazing.

I think we should utilize the synergy of his paradigm to effect a win win situation. In honor of his genius, I have renamed his theory, 'Wonderously Architected For Future non Literal Exegesis', or W.A.F.F.L.E for short. Please join me in congratulating Boruch on his new WAFFLE theory.

More Sinai Proofs Gone Wrong

Rabbi/Dr Gottleib has an interesting article on ‘proofs’ for the Torah and Judasim. What sets him apart from the usual kiruv clowns is that he is a little more sophisticated and honest about things. Overall I found him reasonably convincing, except for his Sinai proof. He goes on for a bit about Sinai, trying to answer every angle, and says this memorable line:

To contradict the Kuzari principle we would need an event which did not happen, and would have left behind enormous evidence if it had happened, and yet people believe it happened.

In other words, since it is extremely unlikely that people would believe in such an event unless it were true, since otherwise the lack of the enormous evidence would dissuade them, therefore Sinai must be true.

However if you could find an event, which people do believe in, which if it did happen, would have left enormous evidence, yet did not actually happen, this would disprove him, as it would show that people can believe in things even though the evidence is not present, or even if the evidence is against it.

The problem is, I have found such an event ! Had it happened, it would have left enormous evidence. Even stronger, had it not happened, it would also have left enormous evidence. It did not happen, yet people still believe in it. Which event ? A global flood of course ! And not only that, what makes it even worse, is that many of the same people who believe in a global flood also believe in Sinai. So sorry, Dr Gottleib, you have been majorly disproved. And on erev Shavuos too. Ouch.

Still, the rest of the article was good, and it was definitely mechazek my emunah. So, I would certainly recommend it for anyone who has emunah issues. Just skip the Sinai bit.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Denial & Delusion Theory

The Rebetzin Hador has a very good policy for dealing with unpleasant truths; she calls it ‘Denial and Delusion’. In other words, just ignore the problems, pretend they don’t exist and they magically disappear. Of course it can always come back to bite you later, so I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the D&D policy for dealing with worn-out break pads. But, it can come in useful, especially for dealing with unpleasant realities which are never going to change, for example a husband who doesn’t like to do laundry.

This policy is actually a variant of HaRav Dovid Adam’s (zt”l) famous vort 'Somebody Elses Problem' (HHGTTG Chelek Shlishi), so kudos to the Rebbetzin for being mechaven to such gadlus.

I was reminded of this on reading Gil’s latest post on Yetzias Mitzrayim. This post really surprised me, and not just because he linked to me. (Yay ! Gil linked to me.) He brings up quite a serious problem, that of the historicity of Yetzias Mitzrayim. In some ways, this issue is worse than the Breishis questions, which can be explained in a variety of ways.

Frumteens, as is typical of fundamentalists, provides a misleading and inaccurate answer. Gil thinks it’s better to be honest and say there is no good answer. I have mixed feelings on this, but it strikes me that here we have another approach to dealing with all those Science and Torah issues: It’s the Denial and Delusion Theory.

Basically, this theory works as follows. Firstly, deny there are any questions. Quote bogus scientists, or simply make things up. Pretend that many scientists do agree with the Torah’s account. Then add a good dose of delusion. Say that Scientists, Archeologists and Historians are always changing their minds anyway, so who knows ? Maybe in the future they will all agree with the Torah’s account.

Its the Denial and Delusion Theory for Life the Universe and Everything !And if that doesn't work, just try changing the topic. A discussion of fish and chairs seems to work quite well.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Whats the difference between a chair and a fish ?

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Frumteens struggles with differentiating furniture from fish:

And here's one more "warning": If I were to ask you what is the difference between a chair and a table, you wouldn't have a hard time asnwering. But if I were to ask you to explain the difference between a chair and a flounder, you'd have a harder time answering , because there's no similarity to begin with such that you can easily list the differences. Explaining the difference between two things becomes easier the more similar the two thigns are to begin with.

Urmm, no it isn't. The more similar they are the more difficult it is. A chair and a flounder are quite different, and therefore easy to differentiate. Perhaps you didn't watch enough Sesame Street as a child ?

(Hat tip: Chanah).

Frumteens encourages teens to read kefirah !

Unbelievable ! Mamash unbelievable. Frumteens has started to encourage his readership, mostly innocent teenagers, to read kefirah ! And not just debatable 'kefirah-lite' (TM) with perfectly acceptable haskamas from leading Roshei Yeshivah, like Rabbi Slifkin's books, but hard-core, unadulterated kefirah, the type that would even cause a left wing modern orthodox Rabbi to turn pale.

In this thread, frumteens says the following:

Check out a book called Ages in Chaos by Immanuel Velikovsky, where he demonstrates that the sudden and inexplicable disappearance fo Egypt as superpower coincides perfectly with the Biblical account of Egypt getitng their country decimated by the Makos and their entire army wiped out at the Yam Suf.

After claiming 'tons of evidence' for Yetziat Mitzrayim (a claim which is patently false) he then advises the poor confused teen to go read a book by Immanuel Velikovsky, called 'Ages in Chaos'. But should Frumteens really be encouraging these innocent teens to be reading Velikovsky ? Lets review some of Velikovsky's theories:

  • That the 'Deluge' (Noah's Flood) had been caused by proto-Saturn entering a nova state, and ejecting much of its mass into space.
  • A suggestion that the planet Mercury was involved in the 'Tower of Babel' catastrophe
  • Jupiter had been the culprit for the catastrophe which saw the destruction of the 'Cities of the Plain' (Sodom and Gomorrah)
  • Periodic close contacts with a cometary Venus (which had been ejected from Jupiter) had caused the Exodus events (c.1500BC) and Joshua's subsequent "sun standing still" incident.
Kefirah Gemurah ! Velikovsky suggests that all the nissim, the plagues, kriat yam suf and the mabul were simply the result of natural movements within the solar system, and not nissim at all.

Shame on you Frumteens !

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

I believe, because I cannot afford not to believe

Marvin Fox z"l was a Professor of Jewish Philosophy at Brandeis, who also had semichah from Skokie. He was one of the contributers to 'The Condition of Jewish Belief'. He says:

No one can reasonably claim to understand how God reveals Himself to man. The very idea of revelation leads us to paradoxes which defy rational explanation. We cannot make fully intelligible in the language of human experience how the eternal enters into the temporal world of man, or how the incorporeal is apprehended by corporeal beings. Yet we affirm in faith what we cannot explicate, for our very humanity is at stake. I believe, because I cannot afford not to believe. I believe, as a Jew, in the divinity of Torah, because without God's Torah I have lost the ground for making my own life intelligible and purposeful.

I think this is how many people feel. I'm sure Mis-nagid has some fallacy link to describe this, but this is the way it is.

Imprecise, but waffle

Poor Boruch. His "Torah is literal but imprecise" theory isn't holding up too well. First he claimed the Torah was 'literal but imprecise' as (opposed to mythological). So, when the torah says the world was created in 6 days, it actually means 6 periods of time (taking yom non literally). Then it was pointed out to him that literal but imprecise (as he explained it) actually meant not literal at all, since literally, yom means day. He then backpedalled, and claimed he was using the word 'literal' in the sense of 'factual', but not actually literal. Then it was pointed out to him that literal means literal, but does not actually mean factual, so using literal in the sense of factual but not literal, is, well, rather silly. He then backpedalled some more and agreed to change his theory to 'Non-literal, but factual'. It was then pointed out to him that if the Torah is non-literal (in certain places), it can hardly be called factual either, since whomever is re-interpreting the words to fit with whatever theory they desire, is in fact supplying all the facts.

Boruch, would you like some help ?

Paradoxical Revelation

I am currently reading "The Condition of Jewish Belief", a fascinating book from the 1960's. 5 questions were asked to a number of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Rabbis, and their responses recorded for posterity. The 5 questions were as follows:

1. How do you understand the concept of Torah min Hashamayim?
2. How do you understand the concept of the Jews as chosen people?
3. Is Judaism the one, true religion?
4. Can one be a good Jew and a communist? (Hey, it was the 60's)
5. What do think of the current 'G-d is dead' theology?

What is interesting is that many of the non-orthodox but yet traditional responses all squirm at question 1. They go and on about how nobody can possibly understand revelation anyway, its completely paradoxical and self-contradictory to say an infinite being could possibly speak to man.

I find this bogus. G-d could have revealed Himself (or the Torah) quite simply. A deep voice could have been (or was, depending on your POV) heard by Moshe, saying, "Hey, Moshe, take this down: Breishis Boroh ....". What's so paradoxical about that ?


  1. One who believes that it is impossible to know whether there is a God.
  2. One who is skeptical about the existence of God but does not profess true atheism.
WORD HISTORY An agnostic does not deny the existence of God and heaven but holds that one cannot know for certain whether or not they exist. The term agnostic was fittingly coined by the 19th-century British scientist Thomas H. Huxley, who believed that only material phenomena were objects of exact knowledge.
I had always thought that 1b. was the definition, so I was somewhat surprised to see that agnosticism really means the belief that its impossible to know if there is a G-d or not. In popular usage today my impression is that when someone says they are agnostic, they mean they are personally unsure, and not that they think its impossible to know.

New Torah For Modern Minds

Read this: New Torah for Modern Minds

Money Quote:

''When I grew up in Brooklyn, congregants were not sophisticated about anything,'' said Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of ''When Bad Things Happen to Good People'' and a co-editor of the new book. ''Today, they are very sophisticated and well read about psychology, literature and history, but they are locked in a childish version of the Bible.''

Ha ! Though surely even modern day congregants in Brooklyn are not that sophisticated either. Manhattan, maybe. But Brooklyn ? Most jbloggers from Brooklyn can't even spell 'ridiculous'.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005 Hador

Gosh. 5 minutes after I renamed myself The Google Hador, I found a better search site, I stumbled upon it by sheer coincidence (see DovBear, there is no such thing as a coincidence !), Wikipedia was down for maintenance and suggested I go there.

Its awesome, plus you can install an IE, Firefox or Desktop Toolbar. No need to Google, this has it all. I would call myself the Hador but it doesn't sound as good. From now on, anyone asking silly questions such as "What is Ugaritic" will be dispatched to, or perhaps (On the downside, is hard to turn into a verb, as in Google.).

Now there are absolutely no excuses for ignorance. Although the usual ones for stupidity still apply, so no worries there Boruch.

Professions for a nice Jewish Boy (or girl)

Gil has a post about working vs. learning. He quotes Rav Yitzchak Breitowitz who mentions some of the pro's and con's of each. Although RYB is unquestionably a great godol, I do question the wisdom of lumping together all careers into one bucket. There is a huge difference between being a doctor, spending all day saving lives, and being in Human Resources, spending all day destroying lives. So here is my handy dandy guide to the professions.

Law: Scumbags. Don't go there. Especially criminal defence. Especially in NY. Even real estate lawyers are scummy.

Advertising: A little scummy. Depends on what product you are advertising.

Accountancy: Good job for a Jewish boy. Just don't cook the books.

Computers: Very good. Also trains the brain so its good for learning. Very little temptation to break business ethics (unless you work for Microsoft). Plus added advantage that all the women in IT are nerds so no temptations there.

Financial Analyst: Boring therefore kosher.

Medicine: Doing mitzvot all day long. What could be better ? Just stay away from plastic surgery.

Dentistry: Gross, but I guess its a mitzvah too. Except maybe teeth whitening.

Day Trading: Basically no different than gambling. Probably ossur and not advisable anyway.

Human Resources: Evil incarnate. Avoid at all costs. You will be unable to resist the temptation to destroy people's happiness.

Publishing: Not bad, unless you are publishing kefirah books, in which case you are going to hell.

Psychiatry: A mitzvah.

Psychology: An aveirah.

Management Consulting: Tough one. The travel is very bad for minyan, chavrusos, family life etc. However the variety and career potential are excellent. Depends on your personal circumstances. Ask a qualified Rabbi (one who knows about consulting that is).

Journalist: Depends on the paper. Jewish Press would be ossur (too much bittul zman). Yated would be very ossur (too much sheker vechozov). NYT or any decent paper would be okay.

Anything at all for IDT: The Gedolim have paskened this is an Issur Gommur, since Jonas supports Chovevei. Anyone slacking off at IDT is therefore doing a mitzvah.

Science, Torah & Feminism

Tammar Ross, a professor at Bar Ilan, has an interesting book called ‘Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism’ which I just finished not reading (too many words in a too small type font). Instead, I read the Finkelman-Ross exchange of views in the latest edition of the Edah Journal (

The reason this is interesting to me is not because I am all that interested in feminism. The Rebbetzin is content to read tehillim behind the mechitzah and is not much of an advocate of women’s rights. Unless you call watching the OC without having the kids bother you a ‘womans right’.

What is fascinating is that Ross faces many of the same problems as the Science and Torah geeks . She is frum, apparently enjoys being frum, but senses that something is quite wrong with the whole shebang. Actually, her dilemma is worse than the S&T crowd. We can simply pass Breishis off as mythology. She, however, needs to deal with a religion which seems to be inherently male-centric/dominant in every aspect from the get-go. However some of her solutions are similar to what we have been discussing, so it’s worth thinking about, if nothing else. As for all you Orthodox feminists out there, back to the kitchen with you ! Blogging is a man’s work.

Finkleman’s describes Ross’s position just so:

Ross raises many difficult questions which Orthodoxy can ill afford to ignore, and she suggests radical solutions. "Orthodoxy must come to understand that all language is inherently bound to a particular time and cultural atmosphere. Sacred sources, including the Torah itself, are no exception. The claim that any text, even one revealed by God, transcends its time and place is self-contradictory. God's revelation of the Torah at Sinai must be understood as the beginning of an ongoing and changing revelatory history that began at Sinai and has yet to come to an end. Revelation is, according to Ross's vivid expression, "cumulative." It develops as the community interprets and reinterprets, privileges or downplays, accepts for contemporary use or sidelines as antiquated, the revelatory traditions of the past.
Ross sounds a little heretical, even Conservative. In fact R Aharon Lichtenstein, not one usually prone to banning people, allegedly called Ross a kofer, an episode she alludes to in her book. Ross’s concept of continuous revelation means that we can potentially change the Torah based on a new revelation, as Finkelman writes:
Ross's notion of "cumulative revelation"—which claims that novel ideas rooted outside of the Jewish tradition are gradually incorporated into Jewish revelation, even at the expense of older revelations—opens the door for feminist consciousness to slowly penetrate the inner sanctum of Jewish tradition. This can lead to wide-ranging changes not only in the legal status of women, but in the very language and categories in which the halakhah speaks to and about women. But this approach could open the door equally wide for any change in Orthodox belief, practice, or language that anybody at all could find compelling. While I, for one, find feminist concerns to be morally more convincing, Ross's arguments could be used equally effectively to alter Judaism in the most fundamental ways to make it more compatible with, say, racism, fascism, or sexism (and echoes of these dangerous ideas can be heard in at least some Orthodox circles). Other than my own conscience, what tools do I have to determine which new ideas are revelations to be embraced and which are heresies to be fought? A theology that is incapable of saying "no!" to anything is equally incapable of saying "yes!" to anything. If everything is potentially revelation, than nothing at all is really revelation.
He then goes on to point out that under Ross’s scheme, we could say that since Fundamentalism seems to be the dominant mind-set of the chareidim these days, then perhaps Fundamentalism is the new ‘Revelation’ from G-d, and we should all become Fundamentalists. In other words, changing the status-quo could just as easily make things worse, not better, and we should just leave things well alone.

For her part, Ross counters with some frum sounding quotes from Rav Dessler, which even to my feeble mind seem a little stretched.
As R. Eilyahu Dessler writes: Mikhtav mi-Eliyahu 1, pp..256-257

The definition of [God’s] unique unity expressed as ein od milvado (there is none but Him alone) cannot be grasped inherently from within creation, for this aspect of God’s uniqueness implies that creation does not really exist [i.e., "there is nothing but Him alone"]. The world was created through [divine self-] contraction and concealment of that truth, and the reality of creation can be perceived only from within creation itself—that is to say, following, and within, that self-contraction— and its reality is only in and of itself, relative to itself". It follows that all our understandings are only relative to creation. They are only within and respect to creation, in accordance with our concepts, which are also created. We possess only relative truth, each one in accordance with his station and condition.

Of interest in this passage is R. Dessler’s acknowledgement of the paradox involved in our obligation to relate to our time-bound and culture-bound perceptions as absolute truth, while at the same time recognizing that these perceptions are valid only from the perspective of created beings. So long as we have a sense of our independent selves as created beings, we are incapable of totally transcending a personalistic model of God. At that level, distinctions between free will and determinism or abstract principles and conflicting messages of history do indeed exist; however, R. Dessler believes that we should be aware of the existence of another level of being beyond our usual picture of God-world relations, at which point there is no difference between revelation and being itself. Only this will allow us to overcome all sorts of antinomies and illusory contradictions in our belief.
My dilemma is that both Ross and Finkelman sound convincing. On the one hand, its true that if we open up Judaism to current trends and modes of thought, there’s no telling where it might end up. On the other hand, the Torah was given to a bunch of slaves in the desert over 3,000 years ago, when things were unquestionably different. For example, Rav Kook and others had no problem saying that Breishis was purposely simplistic since that’s all the people back then were capable of understanding. And the Rambam had no problem saying that the Torah mandated Korbonos as back then that’s what the people needed. So why not say the Torah advocated a male-centric religion since back then that was the prevailing norm and equal rights would not have been possible ?

Monday, June 06, 2005

A Fresh Start

What ! Am I back ?! Well, yes and no. Here are the reasons for some more posts:

1. A rat-faced rival department head killed my projects so now I have some spare time.
2. Gil and DovBear have been posting so much nonsense in my absence that I just have to respond.
3. My 2 week break have given me a fresh perspective on Life the Universe and Everything.
4. AddeRabbi also started back.
5. I received a number of emails from dedicated fans (even right wingers !!!) begging me to start up again.
6. I haven't insulted Boruch Lokshenbrains in a while. (I am not 'viciously anti-Torah' Boruch, I probably learn more in a day than you do in a week. Or maybe you were being 'literal, but imprecise' ?. You dummy.)

Most importantly, there are a number of people who genuinely struggle with a range of issues in Orthodoxy. Maybe I can help.


This blog is not anti-Torah, anti-Orthodoxy or anti-anything. (Except perhaps a bit anti-chareidi but I will try to temper that). OK, its anti-stupidity, but thats about it. The purpose of this blog is to try and find an acceptable form of Orthodoxy which is not in conflict with reality. Last time, we ended up a shtickle Conservative (not that there's neccessarily anything wrong with that, its just not Orthodoxy and hence not where I'm going). Also, belief in the classical Jewish G-d is a given. I am not interested in debating G-d's existence, after all, I wouldn't be comfortable if He started debating mine.