Tuesday, February 28, 2006

February 2006

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

In a recent post, Hirhurim took some flack for apparently being too cynical. One commenter wrote:

You might take a hard look at the tone of your postings when you began this blog and the tone of your posting now, Gil.

There's been a discussion on Areivim recently regarding the impact of blogs on bloggers and readers hashkafa.

An honest assessment could only conclude, I feel, that you've become immeasurably more cynical since the beginning of this blog, Gil. In my opinion, it has negatively impacted your personal growth.
a friend | 02.28.06 - 9:06 am | #

LOL. Or maybe, as with many other bloggers, Gil has become more comfortable expressing his true feelings? He rewrote the post, so we will never see what it was that was deemed so offensive. Perhaps he called the Gedolim idiots. Or perhaps not.

Meanwhile, someone in that same comment thread has coined a new Godol-worthy term – The Narrow Orthodox (NO). These are the people with such narrow minded conceptions of God, the Universe, Torah and everything that their brains have become squashed to the size of peanuts. Not pretty. The Gedolim are also renamed to the 'NO Gedolim' (as opposed to the MO Gedolim), which has a nice ring to it.

Well done Hirhurim! Maybe I should retire?

Monday, February 27, 2006

Vehamaskilim Yazheeru

והמשכלים יזהרו כזהר הרקיע ומצדיקי הרבים ככוכבים לעולם ועד

I recently attended a Kabbalah shiur. Has the Godol lost his mind? No, this wasn’t the Phillip Bergian Kabbalah, but rather a lecture from the world famous academic Dr Daniel Matt, who is currently writing a translation of the Zohar (Pritzker Edition).

Actually, I was expecting him to be a dry academic type, and was surprised at how ‘touchy-feely’ he was. At one point he asked the audience to close their eyes and meditate, while he read (his translation of) the first paragraph of the Zohar. Being a rationalist type of guy I couldn’t do it, in fact I had to suppress a smile at the site of a bunch of middle aged and older hippyish Conservative and Reform Jews all meditating on the Kabalah (not that there's anything wrong with that). On reflection I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised at Matt, after all, he has spent the last 30 years learning the Zohar.

There were 3 kippot in the audience, a black velvet kippah, a sruggi, and one of those conservative knitted wool ones. Plus a woman with a bucharian style hat-kippa. (Can’t tell you which one was mine). Matt spoke about the importance of Torah and spirituality and was quite mussardick, though he also took a couple of gentle swipes at the fundamentalists (not that there's anything wrong with that).

He started the lecture by addressing the question of authorship. He said it was clear that Moses de Leon wrote the Zohar, but possibly based it on earlier texts and ideas, and even Ruach Hakodesh (!). Someone asked him if the Zohar and Kabalah was ‘authentically Jewish’, he replied it was authentically medieval Jewish (whatever that means, *snort*).

He said the most radical thing in the Zohar was the idea of the shechinah being God's female side. Judaism had striven to eradicate the female conception of God, for example with all the Torah’s warnings about worshipping Asherah and Annat, the female Canaanite goddesses. However the concept of a female God was too powerful to eradicate, and so it came back in the form of the Shechinah. This is what Scholem calls ‘The Revenge of Myth’. (That’s what I call my blog).

He added that any conception of God is flawed, and since the classical texts always talked about God as male, the Zohar balances that out by talking about the female side. Our job is to enable the feminine and masculine side of God to join back together (yichud Hashem). We do this by learning Torah, doing Mitzvot and being ethical. (He didn’t explain how this works exactly. *snort*). The Kabbalists were also inspired by Rambam and his theory of negative attributes, and even the Rambam had his mystical side.

He read some other passages, most interesting was how the Zohar translates the first posuk in the Torah – ‘In the beginning (or with Chochmah) [Ayn Sof] created God. Wow, I didn’t learn that one in Yeshivah!

After the lecture I bought his book: ‘Kabbalah and the Big Bang’. (Ha!)

So what do I think of Kabbalah?

I’m torn to be honest. On the one hand, my rationalist side wants to say (actually shout) WHAT A BUNCH OF BOGUS BALONEY! ARRRGGGGGHH!

On the other hand, I believe in the soul, and the most ‘soulful’ people always seem to be into Kabbalah. Plus, the same people who tell you that Torah SheBaal Peh is real also tell you that Kabbalah is real (with a couple of exceptions), and I would like to believe in TSBP. (Then again the same people also tell you Breishis is literal. Hmmm) Also there’s Rav Kook who was really into it. And then there’s that link to the Rambam. ARRRGGGGGHH!

Oh, what’s a rationalist Godol to do?

(PS: Don’t you just love the title of this post?! )

Can Emmes be Kefirah?

One of my Lakewood friends told me that my previous post contained 'serious kefirah' and did I even care. Of course I care! What use would a long post like that be if it didn't contain any 'kefirah'?

But seriously, all I said was that we have to search out the truth. How can the truth be kefirah? Let's say that (theoretically) some overwhelmingly strong evidence was found against one of the ikkarim. Would it be kefirah to accept the evidence? Or would we baal korchaych have to conclude that the din of kefirah in that instance was wrong? I say the latter. Emmes cannot be kefirah.

Clearly, according to our greatest Gedolim BaTorah, the halachos of Kefirah can change, as R Elyashiv said, 'they can say it but we cannot'. If this is true, then I assume the halachos can also change the other way, and things which were previously kefirah can become ok.

For example, an anicent universe was probably clearly kefirah in the 16th century, but now many frum Jews hold of it. In general, it seems we are on a track to being more machmir in Halachah with respect to ritual practice and more 'maykil' with respect to beliefs. Even the recent bans can't stem this flow, over the long course of history there's nothing they can do.

My prediction is that tomorrows Chareidim will have the dox level of todays Modern Orthodox. And tomorrows Modern Orthodox will have the prax level of Today's Chareidim.

And as for kefirah, that word is way overused.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Weekly Mussar, Machshavah & Chizuk Drashah for the Orthodox Conservative Chareidi Kehillah

Rabbosai, last week, some of us felt our emunah slipping away as we contemplated the upcoming Teaneck Gedolim Show, starring Rabbis Feldman, Salomon and Shachter. Each of these had recently written (or signed their names to) announcements of quite stunning stupidity, and of questionable ethics too.

How could it be that the Gedolim, the ones who learn the most Torah, the ones who know the most Halchah, could be so clueless? Isn’t that strong evidence that the whole concept of Torah is flawed? Isn’t that strong evidence that the whole of Orthodoxy is flawed? Isn’t that strong evidence that the whole of Judaism is flawed?

I wrote the following to a respected acquaintance of mine:

Of all the things that bother me (DH, Science etc) the Gedolim bother me the most. If Torah is the best and learning Torah is the best then these people should be the best. Not perfect, but the best. But I just can't see it.

His reply came quickly:

It used to bother me too, but that was before I realized that "the gedolim" is propaganda and crap.

As for learning Torah and being the best, in my book unless you know a lot of madda then you don't know a hill of beans about Torah. If you're learning Kodashim, for example, and you don't know animals, then you're just zugging tehillim. A lot of these great talmidei chachomim wouldn't know a Bavel from a baseball, so they're just great zuggers/ memorizers. They're like Bar Ilan CDs.

All the true greats--all of them--know a lot more than how to misapply maamarei chazal. R' Yaakov Kamenetzky quoted Christian David Ginsburg in Emes L'Yaakov. The rest of this bunch? Feh.

The Rambam is very clear in Moreh Nevuchim that one cannot be a Godol without an understanding of Science and Philosophy. When I first learnt that, a couple years ago, I was skeptical, I have to admit. I felt the Rambam was just trying to justify his own love of philosophy. Why on earth should a Rosh Yeshivah or Godol need to know Science?!

But in the last year or so, my whole attitude has changed. I started to read Science books and journals, and saw the most amazing things in there, the most incredible chochmah. I know personally what a tremendous amount I have gained from debating the skeptics, and thinking critically about all sorts of issues. These kind of critical thinking skills and philosophical ideas are simply not taught in the Yeshivah world. It’s no wonder that our Gedolim are deficient, from the Rambam’s point of view they are missing a key foundational building block.

To the right of us are many people with juvenile, even infantile, unsophisticated and quite frankly backwards conceptions of the world and how it works. They may be Gedolim in Torah and Halachah, but they are Ketanim in Maddah and Sechel. But it's more than that. As the Rambam said, the lack of knowledge in Maddah produces a weaker understanding of God and religion too. The two concepts of Torah and Maddah are equally important. Torah without Maddah is defficient. And nothing has more clearly illustrated this than the events of the past year.

Those to the right have strayed so far from reality that they actually ‘pasken’ that reality is kefirah. But worse than this, the right is being merachek some of our smartest thinkers, people who simply cannot tolerate such stupidity. The Rambam spent his life trying to reconcile the science of his day with Torah, yet these people declare the science of our day to be kefirah!

But this is not evidence against Torah. This is not evidence against the Mesorah. This is the most incredible evidence for how right the Rambam was. Writing over Eight Hundred years ago, before real Science had even been invented, the Rambam understood the truth.

I’m not saying that every Godol needs a PhD in Physics and Chemistry, of course not. But at least they need to understand the basics! Otherwise they will look like fools. In fact, they do look like fools.

But this drashah is not about bashing the Gedolim. Really.

Let’s look in the other direction, to the left. What do we see?

We see some very smart people, some very knowledgeable people, who have become very disillusioned with Orthodox Judaism. They have discovered that Breishis can’t be literally true. They say that parts of Shemos and the Neviim can’t be true. Their whole lives they have been fed the extremist fundamentalist conception of Judaism. They were told Modern Orthodoxy is treif, and that the Rambam was wrong in the Moreh Nevuchim for trying to reconcile Science and Torah. When these people finally realize that a global flood is not possible, or that there were many people alive 10,000 years ago, they just can’t comprehend it. Bit by bit they slip away, rejecting one core principle of Judaism after another. Eventually many of them become hard core skeptics, rejecting all of Judaism. Some even end up as Atheists. Think about this for a second: We have graduates of our finest chareidi yeshivot ending up as atheists! This isn’t 1850 with the rise of the Haskalah and emancipation. This is 2006, with a kosher pizza store on every corner. Is this not mind-boggling?!

These people have become ‘Gedolim’ in Maddah and Sechel, but in the process they have become Ketanim in Torah and Mitzvot. Do they have any answers to how the Universe was created? What’s the fundamental basis of current reality? (It’s turtles all the way down!). Can they explain consciousness, free will or why anyone should be moral? Do they have any mehalch in life, any reason to do anything other than ‘eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we will die’? Because they have discovered some untruths in Orthodoxy, they end up throwing everything away.

Some of these people end up being Orthoprax by choice. They keep the Halachah, not because they believe in Torah MinHashamayim, but because of the positive benefits it can provide. This is looked down upon by the Orthodox world. Ironically, these people may be closer to the truth than the right wing, who think that the Halchahot were given by God ‘just because’. The Rambam has very strong words on the subject:

THERE are persons who find it difficult to give a reason for any of the commandments, and consider it right to assume that the commandments and prohibitions have no rational basis whatever. They are led to adopt this theory by a certain disease in their soul, the existence of which they perceive, but which they are unable to discuss or to describe. For they imagine that these precepts, if they were useful in any respect, and were commanded because of their usefulness, would seem to originate in the thought and reason of some intelligent being. But as things which are not objects of reason and serve no purpose, they would undoubtedly be attributed to God, because no thought of man could have produced them.

According to the theory of those weak-minded persons, man is more perfect than his Creator. For what man says or does has a certain object, whilst the actions of God are different; He commands us to do what is of no use to us, and forbids us to do what is harmless. Far be this ! On the contrary, the sole object of the Law is to benefit us. Thus we explained the Scriptural passage," for our good always, that He might preserve us alive, as it is this day" (Deut. vi. 24). Again," which shall hear all those statutes (hukkim), and say, surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people" (ibid. iv. 6). He thus says that even every one of these" statutes" convinces all nations of the wisdom and understanding it includes. But if no reason could be found for these statutes, if they produced no advantage and removed no evil, why then should he who believes in them and follows them be wise, reasonable, and so excellent as to raise the admiration of all nations ?

But the truth is undoubtedly as we have said, that every one of the six hundred and thirteen precepts serves to inculcate some truth, to remove some erroneous opinion, to establish proper relations in society, to diminish evil, to train in good manners or to warn against bad habits.

I can’t think of any attitude in contemporary Orthodoxy which bothers me more than the ‘We do the Mitzvos because we are commended to’ attitude. What a ridiculous notion! How any intelligent adult can believe in this nonsensical attitude is beyond me. Could there be deep mystical effects behind the mitzvos, rather than anything rational? It’s possible, but I doubt it. Sure, there is great value in the mystical tradition, and even value in thinking of mystical symbolisms when performing the Mitzvot. But this is not the core of the Mitzvot. They are not magic tricks. Davening isn’t magic spells. If you don’t understand why you are doing something then it has very little value.

The Rambam was probably one of the most (if not the most) influential figures in Judaism in the last two thousand years, possibly three thousand. Even in the backwardness of the middle ages, the Rambam was a shining beacon of rationality. Of course he was handicapped by the science of his times. But even with that he was still so far ahead of his time that even today his works are still fresh. If anything, interest and respect for the Rambam has grown over the centuries rather than diminished.

When one reads the Moreh Nevuchim one can’t help but be astounded by what the Rambam was attempting to do. Reading the Friedlander or Pines translations can be difficult, and I certainly wouldn’t give much credence to any Feldheim or Artscroll books which may contain interpreted snippets of the Rambam’s thought.

Recently I have been reading ‘Maimonides: A Guide For Today’s Perplexed’ by Kenneth Seeskin. This books is AMAZING. OUTSTANDING. It’s a small, inexpensive work, by a (Jewish) philosophy professor, but it reads like the most moiradick sefer I have ever seen. If I translated this book into Hebrew and published it as a Sefer written by a Rav you couldn’t tell the difference (except maybe with some of the ‘heretical’ bits). It’s that good.

(Holy Hyrax and others: BUY THIS BOOK. READ THIS BOOK. NOW!)

The Rambam didn’t have a mesorah for most of his philosophy. He even admits as much himself. He figured it out by thinking hard. He even say’s he got ‘flashes’ of inspiration, in a process ‘similar to prophecy’. I think I know what he is talking about.

To me, its clear that God exists. And if God exists, then there is a reason He created us. It is also clear to me that the current, standard official ‘Orthodox’ theology is not all true. I debated with a skeptic last week who insisted on saying that ‘Orthodoxy is NOT true’. But that’s a very negative way of presenting things. Certainly, not everything in Orthodoxy is 100% true. But that’s a long way from saying Orthodoxy is not true.

I am grateful that I experienced life in Chareidi Yeshivot and in the Chareidi world. Instead of seeing the Chareidim as beings from another planet, I can relate to them and their culture. I know what a true shabbos feels like, or learning shtark for hours at a stretch. There is truth in there. Maybe not the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but certainly some truth.

I am also grateful for all the debates I have had with the skeptics, even the militant anti-religious skeptics. They have taught me so much.

It’s clear to me that both Science and ‘Torah’ are true, or rather that both contain truth. They both come from God, they MUST reconcile. But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to kvetch unlikely peshattim in Breishis, or come up with ridiculous scenarios in Shemos.

Is it possible that the Scientists are wrong? Yes, I suppose it’s remotely possible. Is it possible that God doesn’t actually exist? Yes, I suppose it’s remotely possible. It’s also remotely possible that we are all just brains in a jar, or maybe just you are. But one can’t live one’s life worrying about the remotely possible. The Truth is right there in front of us. We only need to open our eyes to see it.

We have a very difficult task ahead of us. It’s nothing less than the deconstruction and then reconstruction of Judaism to make it fit with the latest knowledge. And of course, as the latest knowledge is continually improving, that means it’s a continuous process of deconstruction and reconstruction. There is no other way. A static Judaism worked for 1,500 years of exile, but only in a static world. In a dynamic world, Judaism must be dynamic also.

Even though the Rambam lived 800 years ago, his approach still resonates today, perhaps even more than ever.

On Thursday nights I attend an advanced Rambam shiur. This week we studied how the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim interpreted the Maaseh Merkava as an allegory to Aristotelian Metaphysics. At first, this depressed me greatly. If the Rambam could go to great lengths to invent such a bogus peshat, what credibility could he have? But after thinking about it later (and due in no small part to my Rebbe’s reply), I realized that I was again falling into the fundamentalist inspired trap of only thinking in black and white. Of course not every word in the Moreh Nevuchim is 100% true. But that doesn’t mean it’s all false.

Some people might question how any of this is different from Reform or Conservative Judaism. Didn’t those movements have exactly the same goals? And even worse, haven’t those movements proven to be abject failures? This is a tough question. You could claim the Rambam was a Reformer. Some people claim that Chazal were huge reformers. There is nothing wrong with reform per se, as long as it’s Leshem Shamayim, and performed due to a desire for the emmes. Certainly, some of the original leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements had the right motivations. Some of these people could even be called ‘Gedolim’. But the vast majority of the laity was interested for other reasons. They wanted out of the Ghetto and wanted to be rid of the restrictions of Halachot. I believe that many of the skeptics here and elsewhere are not looking for that. What they are looking for is a passionate Judaism that they can believe in.

I don’t think the Rambam has all the answers, but reading Seeskin’s summary of the Moreh Nevuchim has convinced me that he’s on the right path. Right now, it’s more of a ‘flash’ than something I can articulate clearly. It’s a sense that behind every simplistic understanding of Judaism (e.g. God dictated every word of the Torah to Moshe), there’s a different, much more subtle, yet equally inspiring reality, that is not in conflict with the facts at all. It’s clear that the Chareidi world is unable to accept such a reality. It’s equally clear that much of what the Rambam says in the Moreh Nevuchim couldn’t be accepted by the Chareidi masses either. But that’s not a flaw in Judaism per se. It’s the unfortunate consequence of 1,000 years of ghetto-ization.

Rather than complaining about how distorted Orthodox Judaism has become, we must start building a new version of Orthodox Judaism, based primarily on the Rambam, but also on other contemporary thinkers such as Rav Kook, RYBS and similar. We will not shirk from any established fact. We will not stoop to apologetics or kiruv clownliness. I think we can build something which makes sense. I think we can become Gedolim in Science AND in Torah.

That’s our goal and that’s our mission.

Scoff, be skeptical, call us heretics; we don’t mind. We need the criticisms and the debates from both the right and the left, because that’s the only way to grow. While stinging and uncomfortable at times, the comments of Mis-nagid to the left and Anonymous to the right are equally valuable to us. We also need the advice and insights from those few people who are on the same path as us, especially David G. Boruch Hashem for all these people, I don’t know what we would do without them. It’s also clear to me that I’m not just a student in this endeavor, but in fact a teacher. One of my ‘talmidim’ last week told me that it’s because of me that he’s still frum.

There really is no other option for us. It’s impossible to ignore science and history. But it’s equally impossible to become atheists or deists. We are heirs to a three thousand year old tradition. A tradition that changed the world. A tradition that has an incredible amount of truth in it. Does Buddhism contain truth? I’m sure it does. But I’m not a Buddhist! God put me on this earth for a reason, and placed me in an Orthodox Jewish setting for a reason. My goal is to take the tradition that I have been handed and make the most out of it.

The fundamentalists who refuse to budge from their infantile perceptions don’t trouble me so much. In fact I pity them and their lack of comprehension. I also greatly admire their commitment and passion. We have much to learn from them in this regard.

The skeptics who have thrown everything away don’t trouble me so much either. It saddens me that they couldn’t hang on to anything at all. I admire their commitment to the truth, but fear that they have gone too far, many to the point of no return. They threw out Orthodox Judaism, and then they threw out Judaism, and then they threw out God. They didn't just throw out the baby with the bath-water, they threw out everything with the bath water. But the saddest thing of all is that they didn’t have anything to replace it all with. They are now lost and adrift, in a sea of pop culture and nihilism. Who are they going to look to for inspiration and guidance?

Fellow seekers and talmidim, we are fortunate to have guidance and inspiration in our quest. Maybe not from the current crop of ‘Gedolim’, but certainly from a host of other sources, both ancient and contemporary. Our guiding lights in this endeavor will include the following:

First and foremost, and without equal, the Rambam.
Second, and almost without equal, Rav Kook.
Third, the Rav and his talmidim.

Fourth, other recent and contemporary thinkers, including:

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Rabbi Umberto Cassutto
Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz
Rabbi AJ Heschel

… and many others.

Is this a dangerous quest? Maybe. But there is no other option here. Can this be done in the public eye, without being branded as heretics, or ‘not Orthodox’? I’m not sure. We’ll have to see. It’s certainly not our intent to induce any emunah doubts in anyone. If you are comfortable where you are, but are concerned that you might get emunah doubts, then the OCCK is not for you.

We are looking for a mehalech in life. We are guided by 3000 years of Torah, but also by 3000 years of Maddah. There is no other way. Which one takes precedence in any particular issue? The question is flawed. Since God created both, it’s not a question of one taking precedence over the other.

It’s a question of what the emmes is. And we’re on a mission to find out.

Have a shavuoh tov.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Lakewood Dvar Torah 2

[I just received this Dvar Torah by email. It was written by a Kollel guy in Lakewood]

Bnei Yisroel were mekabel the Torah by saying naase venishma but what does it mean venishmah ? Obviously it can't refer to the mitzvah for without shmiyah there would have been no asiyah in the first place. Reb Aharon zt"l explains that venishma means we will understand- similar to Shma Yisroel - understand Yisroel that Hashem is ONE, not simply hear the words. This level of understanding can only be gained through practical observance. Someone struggling with understanding certain mitzvos has to be advised that only through their observance will an understanding ever be gained and not vice versa, simply because that's how the Torah was given. If someone wants to rely on their intellect to guide them in mitzvah level observance then he has missed the entire kabbolas HaTorah boat. Rather, the learning of practical halocha- how to act needs to be studied to assure us we are following halacha correctly, only after which practical application can we hope to understand better the significance of our actions. The gedolim of the previous generation insisited that people remove TV from their homes, which then seemed irrational and fanatical. However, in retrospect venishmah we can see the wisdom of such a policy. With internet it's the same story- there may seem little concrete justification for listening to the Rabbinical voices opposing its free use, but naase- get rid of it first and then venishma , you'll understand how much has been gained in implementing the doctrine.

[GH: This sounds remarkably like my whole theory of religious experience. Even the Lakewood kollel guys are now ripping me off!]

Thursday, February 23, 2006

More shiurim you'll never see

Why DovBear has no soul

DovBear posts on why he doesn't really believe in souls. His argument boils down the following:
  • Everything we do & feel is clearly due to our brains and bodies
  • Souls are spiritual not physical, and no one can explain how the spiritual affects the physical
  • Judaism works just as well without souls
  • There is no ikkar to believe in souls
  • Thefore DB doesn't believe in souls
There are a number of problems with his approach.

First of all, Judaism doesn't work just as well without souls. There is a fairly fundamental notion in Judaism that what we do in this life affects our soul, which then goes on to Olam Habah (or maybe Gehinom). If the physical and the spiritual can't interact, then how do your physical actions have any effect on your spiritual soul? And if the physical can influence the spiritual, why cannot the spiritual influence the physical? Plus, if you believe God created and maintains the universe, then clearly the spiritual can affect the physical.

Secondly, as far as I know, no major Orthodox Jewish thinker has ever gotten rid of souls. DovBear seems to want to remove a major part of our mesorah without precedent. Now at this point I can well imagine some people thinking I'm a bit of a hypocrite, since I was happy to call Breishis Mythology. But there is a huge difference. We are forced to reinterpret Breishis since we now know Breishis can't be literally true. However no new scientific evidence has come forward to disprove souls.

Of course, from a scientific skepticism point of view, there is no reason to believe souls exist, since there is no evidence for them. But the same argument works for God too. DovBear's response to this is that the same argument works for fairies and leprachauns too. This is all true, and this is why atheists exist.

However, if you are going to buy into the religious worldview, and are going to try and attempt to believe as much as the mesorah as possible without losing your sanity, then God and Souls are right up there as rather key components. I don't really see the value in trying to strip Judaism of as much spiritual stuff as possible. At the end of the day, you still have to believe in God and Olam Habah, so what's the point? What do you gain? You can never truly be rational. Orthodox Judaism and Scientific Skepticism do not mix.

Not only that, but it's the spiritual experience which gives many people the motivation to remain religious. Strip that away, and what do you have left? A pareve sterile religion which is just about following orders because your brain has become hard-wired and you have no choice? What a depressing model of religion.

The approach I take is that where the facts contradict the mesorah, clearly we need to make some changes, ikkarim or no. But when we're talking about the mystical or spiritual plane, there are no facts, only the mesorah, so you might as well go with the flow. This is also why I stopped bashing kabbalah. Of course the Zohar was mostly made up in the middle ages. But that's irrelevant. Kabalah is man's attempt to feel and express the mystical experience.

I appreciate that DovBear has had enough of the chassidisization of his local shteeble, which is all the more painful to him because of his strict yekkishe upbringing.

But even a yekke needs some soul.

UPDATE: I forgot the most obvious argument. Judaism requires free will. And schar v'onesh (due to choices made by people with free will) is one of the ikkarim. And free will doesn't actually exist in a purely physical world, it's not scientifically possible. Ina purely physical world, your brain is a physical system which obeys the laws of physics. Last time I checked, there is no Law of Free Will. The only thing that could give you free will is your soul. Sorry, DovBear, I win... again!

Shiurim you'll never see (no.1)

[Hat tip S]

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Gedolim Show

I saw an absolutely fantastic comment on Areivim about the Gedolim Show in Teaneck. Areivim don't officially allow their stuff to be publicized, so I painfully reconstructed the entire post word for word in a clean room by reverse engineering from the APIs (only happy will get that one!).

I have also omitted the name of the person who wrote this, but I am more than happy to give him credit. For some reason some people think that he and I are in some kind of argument. Not true! I never meant to denigrate this person in any way. He has a great blog and writes great stuff.

Anyways, here is his comment, with some minor editing for clarity:

In my opinion, the activists of the MO community of Teaneck [who are arranging the Gedolim Show] are doing their Kehillah wrong by hosting it. This goes back to a point I made here ad nauseum: MO has to be self-confident enough not to need Chareidi validation.

That's the real reason their [MO] kids are joining Torah-only derakhim. For all the platitudes, deep down Ima and Abba really believe they're living a compromise, and their actions betray those core beliefs.

As a stop-gap, better the children get turned on to Yahadus with this program than not inspired at all. But if MO is to survive as a derekh, it needs to come up with a MO alternative, VERY QUICKLY.

I should also point out that all three Gedolim have labeled certain beliefs that are held by the overwhelming majority of MO to be kefirah.

This is b'chlal a tough problem in Chinuch in the MO world - the issue of living role models is very real. There is only so far you can go with RAYHK and RYBS.

Frankly, MO has many men [and presumably women too] of significant caliber without needing to go to the top names in their histories. People who qualify as gedolim by the same criteria as RAF or RAS -- rashei yeshiva who are our top names in pesaq today.

So go with who is alive and is an inspiring gadol of their own kehillah: R' Herschel Schachter, R' Goldvicht, R' Willig... To get away from YU, how about some of the rashei yeshivot from Hesder or Bnei Akiva? In short, I think the old joke "MO gedolim cards! Be the first on your block to collect both!" is simply mistaken.

MO isn't about following some illusory consensus of gedolei Torah. So they don't make a big deal, and are even weak at identifying their own gedolim. But if they want gedolim to inspire, they should start by simply giving their own RY the same kavod they give members of the mo'etzes. This just implicitly concedes victory to the yeshiva velt on the "who is a gadol" game. If you're going to play the game, play to win -- or draw.

…In general, MO should be unwilling to give a forum to someone who refuses to participate in a program with one of their own gedolei Torah.

This commenter just answered my conundrum below, and has restored my emunah. Boruch Hashem! I'm being serious here. I had fallen into the trap of thinking these Gedolim are the only Gedolim. Of course they are not. In fact, if the MO deerch is the correct one, then these Gedolim are actually lacking in some significant areas, hence the reason for their perceived sub-par performance in those areas.

This is NOT to denigrate those Gedolim in any way.

The last thing I want to be doing is denigrating Gedolim, especially when I am fighting with the skeptics and maintaining that the success of Torah and Mitzvot is the key to my faith!

We just have to recognize that it's 'different strokes for different folks.'

The UO Gedolim have certain strengths, but also certain weaknesses, which pretty well match up with the strengths and weaknesses of their own constituencies. Likewise, one can say the same about the MO Gedolim.

However we in MO (and even we in OCC) need to get away from this mentality of THE Gedolim. We have literally been brainwashed into this mentality, both by the chareidim, but also, as the commenter above says, by the MO ourselves, by not showing enough kavod to our own Gedolim.

Every group has their 'Gedolim' and that's exactly the way it should be, in a religion which values scholarship and role models. Of course we shouldn't denigrate the leaders of others, and of course the leaders of other groups should not denigrate us. However we are under no obligation whatsoever to hold that leaders of other groups are our leaders too.

It needs to be made clear that each set of Gedolim lead their own group and their own group alone.

Of course I am not saying that MO should start creating a cult of MO Gedolim, that's not in keeping with our derech. But we should certainly be showing kavod to our Gedolim, and not feeling that we can only show kavod to theirs, or that we even have to show the same level of kovod to theirs. Do we need to show more respect to Rav Elyashiv than to R Saul Berman for example? I don't think so. Both are leaders of other groups, and we should show the exact same basic level of kovod to each.

Also, it's clear that the kavod to the MO Gedolim will not be reciprocated (for the most part) from the Chareidi world. That's a shame, but that's also their problem, and one they will have to answer for in olam habah. We shouldn't lose any sleep over that.

More Gedolim in Teaneck!

What an awesome opportunity for all the Teaneck Shenishbahs to go hear inspiring Divrei Mussar and Divrei Torah from some of the greatest Gedolim of our generation! I attended some of Rav Mattisyahu’s mussar shmoozen in the past, though mostly they focused on why yeshivah bochrim shouldn’t cook their own dinners or have pictures of Mickey Mouse on their walls. At least that’s the only part I can remember. I guess the rest must have been less interesting.

On the other hand, these Gedolim have negligently paskened that large numbers of klal yisrael are kofrim. This could be seen as the biggest blow to achdus since the sinas chinom of Bayis Sheni. Maybe it’s even ossur to go hear these guys speak?

I do have respect for the institution of Gedolim (and even Daas Torah to some extent). If I didn’t I wouldn’t really care what the Gedolim say. I have to believe in the Gedolim, because I believe in Limmud Torah and the Halachic System, and if our greatest Rabbanim aren’t head and shoulders above the rest of us then what’s the point?

This is the corner I have painted myself into. My theology means that I can’t accept that the Gedolim are anything less than great, yet their pronouncements and actions clearly seem to be sub-par. I have no good answer to this conundrum, except maybe to say that all Judaism is baloney, or alternatively everything I hold of is baloney, neither of which are attractive options. I spoke to a close relative of RAF about this and he didn't have a good answer to this question either.

Oy, I feel my emunah crashing. Must go and get a shot of some Rambam or RYBS, quick! Crud, I’m at my desk, no RYBS available! Oh no, I’m coding! ... must log on to VBM ... can’t .... type....fast....enough ....

Gedolim in Teaneck!

Wow! The Gedolim are coming to Teaneck! Rav Aharon Feldman, Rav Aharon Shechter and Rav Matisyahu Salomom are speaking at Congregation Bnei Yeshurin in Teaneck on March 5th. The title of the program is 'Perspectives on Timeless Issues'.

This has got to be a Public Relations Damage Control type of thing, an attempt to rescue their sullied reputations. I wonder who their PR firm is?

Is Teaneck really ready for the Gedolim? This is gonna be good. Unfortunately I can't make it, but one of you guys HAS to be there!

Please record the event also so we won't have to debate whether Reb Matt said pygmies or midgets.

[Hat Tip: Marty Bluke]

UPDATE: I just looked at the list of participating shuls, quite an impressive list. So are the chareidim going to reciprocate in this love fest? Are we gonna see all the shteibles of Monsey & Lakewood get together to host R Saul Berman, R Hershel Shachter and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks? Somehow I don't think so.

Are Conservative Chareidim Orthodox?

Of course they are. And of course they aren't. In other words, the question makes no sense.

In the real world, labels such as 'Orthodox', 'Conservative', 'MO, 'RW' and so on are required. Boundaries need to be defined for practical, cultural and social reasons and I don't dispute that. I respect the right for any community to set boundaries, even the RW Chareidim. However, in the anonymous world of hashkafah blogging, we can dispense with such practicalities and talk about the emmes.

Does Judaism require you to be 'Orthodox'? Of course not. Only the first of the asseres hadibros requires a belief, and that's the belief in God. Judaism requires you to keep Halachah. The Rambam defined 13 ikkarim and other rishonim had a different number, but again that was all about boundary setting. Likewise Chazal 'paskened' that having (or not having) certain beliefs meant you lost your chelek in olam habah, but again they were boundary setting. Chazal also say if you are mevayesh somone you lose your chelek. Is this a halchah, or an aggadatah designed to motivate people?

Of course it doesn't make sense to dispense with certain beliefs. For example denying the soul, or denying any revelation at Sinai kinda make the religion somewhat pointless. But that's a side issue. The key to Judaism is believing in God and doing the mitzvos. Heck, you could probably even get by with just doing the mitzvos alone.

In fact, the real key to life is Bayn Odom Lechaveyroh, and then Bayn Odom Lamokom, in that order. The rest is almost inconsequential by comparison. Halevai we should all be zoche to be mekayem Bayn Odom Lechaveyroh and Bayn Odom Lamokom to the fullest extent.

Now, to drop into reality for a moment, does Conservative Chareidi stand a chance of being recognized as Chareidi in the real world?

Well, there are already quite a few people who fit in that category. These people can be found in many different strains of Orthodoxy, even Chareidim. They are also predominant in YCT, JTS and places like that.

Are they Orthodox? Well, there is a very fine line between Orthodox and Conservative even in the real world. In fact, you can barely define the border as you get really close to it, kind of like a Zeno's paradox. Some people say the difference is Torah Min Hashamayim, but that doesn't work on the boundary. Plenty of people in JTS believe in TMS, and there are plenty of defnitions of TMS too. What exactly does TMS even mean? Every word? Direct dictation? Divinely Inspired? The permutations are endless. Only a simple minded fundamentalist thinks in terms of black and white.

So, even in the real world, with a bit of finessing and tact you could quite easily portray Conservative Chareidi as genuinely Orthodox. Heck, if Lubavitch can get away with it, anyone can! But seriously, I don't see a problem here. There is no real definition of Orthodoxy which can't be worked around.

So, I hereby rename Conservative Chareidi to Orthodox Conservative Chareidi (OCC, not to be confused with OCD or the OC). David G, please take note of your new title.

This has been a public service announcement from the Orthodox Conservative Chareidim

Thank you.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Song for DovBear

Dov Bear believes Sinai mountain,
Dov Bear believes Sinai mountain,
Dov Bear believes Sinai mountain,
And why do you think that is?

And why do you think that is?
And why do you think that is?

Because he was told to believe in the mountain
Because he was told to believe in the mountain
Because he was told to believe in the mountain
And that’s why he believes

And that’s why he believes
And that’s why he believes
Told to believe in the Sinai mountain
And that’s why he believes

DovBear: I'm irrational because I was brought up that way!

Oy vey. DovBear has posted about his belief. I guess he was jealous of the 704 comments (at last count) on my belief post and is trying to better it. As he said yesterday:

'Warning: If I don't get a good response to long, arduously written posts about Torah, I will go back to appending dumb joke to DNC talking points'"

I'm kinda torn here. On the one hand, I certainly don't want him to go back to dumb jokes. On the other hand, his long arduously written posts on Torah are generally more tedious than arduous. Still, let's address the Bear's latest hashkafah fumblings.

The post starts with an irrelevant discussion of Hume and why it's irrational to believe the Sun will rise tomorrow, taken from a book that I recommended he read, and which Mis-nagid recommended to me. My theory is that the DuvyBear was uncomfortable with such a touchy feely almost seminary girly concept as belief, and therefore tried to be cool by quoting some philosophy stuff.

He then goes on to the amazing dramatic climax:

I believe because ........ (drum roll)

...... I was brought up to believe!!!!!

Such genius!

Hume's issue is not that relevant here. Of course we can't prove that the sun will rise tomorrow, however based on the evidence so far, there is certainly a very reasonable chance that it will. Sure, the universe could explode (or implode) or a giant black hole could swallow our galaxy, but thankfully the odds of that are low. It might happen someday (though probably not so dramatically), but the odds are still low for any one day. Therefore it's rational to believe that in all probability the sun will rise tomorrow. Which is what we all believe.

Sinai is another matter entirely. As with all things, we have to figure out the evidence for and against, and make a reasonable choice. If DovBear is convinced that the evidence is against, yet he still believes, then he's either dishonest or else not very credible. If he believes the evidence is balanced, then by all means he can fall back on his upbringing to make a practical choice.

Of course DovBear is being entirely inconsistent as usual, since he ridicules others for believing in the soul. Why can't they simply say they believe because they were brought up to believe? Heck, that catch all answer works for everything, even 16th century superstitions and kugel. Then again, I guess DovBear is consistently inconsistent, so maybe thats okay, at least in DovBear bizzaro logic (not to mention rediculous spelling) land.

Anyway, all kidding aside, I do love the Bear, (in a very manly and not at all seminary girly way) and am gratified that he has now committed a mistake of Gossleibian proportions. Folks, next time DovBear argues against you on any subject at all, you have the perfect comeback - 'I believe because I was brought up to believe'. Works on anything at all, guaranteed, or your money back.

Some commenters over there commended Duvy for his honesty, for admitting he believes even though he doesn't have any good evidence. I say phooey. Believing without any evidence at all, just because you were told to believe, is worthless.

Since when is it a maaloh to be a mindless robot?

My ears are burning

Well, the people on Areivim who are discussing me finally stopped pretending who they were talking about and have started referring to me by name (i.e. GH, not my real name). Its quite an interesting conversation.

My fans argue that I am providing a valuable service, and that the fact that I am still a maamin (I am? errr I mean I am!) even with all the questions is very powerful, and my posts about emunah are far more powerful than anything they could write. This is true, though on the flip side, if the skeptics ever do manage to 'turn' me that would be pretty damaging too. My opponents think that I am just too rude and/or heretical to be muttar to read. They also complain that I give a forum for the serious skeptical crew to comment. Well duh, I give a forum to everybody to comment. It's not my fault if the hard core skeptics outnumber the believers.

It seems that everyone agrees though that my tone is sometimes too rude. In real life I am quite a mild chap, so I get to vent on my blog. Ironically, my frustration is not at all caused by religion. I live amongst the Orthoprax Kofrim (oops, hope my neighbors aren't too offended by that line - just kidding) and feel no religious pressure at all. Even the Rebbetzin doesn't pressure me, (except to do the laundry and stuff like that).

No, the constrained, rules based environment which causes me to vent is actually a different part of my life - but I need my parnasah and there have been too many maisos recently with blogs and that subject so I can't even mention it. VeHamayvin Yavin.

I also expect that most mature people realize that when I call someone a 'raving lunatic' I mean it in the best possible way, with oodles and oodles of love and kisses and hugs and affirmation and empathy etc. OK, maybe one or two times there was the slightest hint of a speculation of a teensy weensy bit of annoyance on my part. For that I sincerely apologize, and I promise never ever to do it again until next time.

Meanwhile, DB is picking a fight with me about spirituality and the soul. It's been a few months since we last fought about this and I know both he and I need a change from our regular fare so I forsee a big DB vs. GH slugfest coming up. DB's position on the soul is 'interesting' to say the least. He says we have never seen a soul, so how do we know we have one? My counter is, you can say the same thing about God. He responds that souls can't hear, see or think.

My counter is, how the heck do you know that if you have never seen one?

As for Areivim, they should stick to discussing evolution. Still bittul torah, but at least not as much loshon horah.

Allegorizing the Avos

Some people like to quote the famous story of how the second Maimonidean controversy started. I forget some of the details but basically some Godol/Kannoi was in shul (vyesh gorsin at a wedding) and he heard the local Rav (or local yokels) giving a dvar torah to the effect that Avraham and Sarah were allegories of Form & Substance (or something along those lines). The Godol/Kannoi decided things had gone way too far and the controversy erupted.

None of this has any bearing on whether Noach is real or not. The 13th Century allegorizers were certainly not allegorizing Avraham because he didn't fit with the facts of science! They were doing it in an attempt to show that the Torah was in fact an Aristotelian philosophical treatise. Our need to allegorize Noach is based on the fact that the evidence shows the story as told could never have happened.

And anyways, 'allegorize' is completely the wrong word. Noach isn't an allegory, it's a mythical tale imbued with ethical and moral teachings. And please skeptics, don't commit the skeptical fallacy of saying that the flood was morally wrong. By what objective standards of morality could you possibly claim that?

Monday, February 20, 2006

When in doubt, ask the soul

In a blatant rip-off of my recent mega 'Experience' post, Hirhurim posts 'Faith Through Experience and More'. And he doesn't even have the decency to reference me! Luckily Steve Brizel and others had the honesty to point out in the comments that I had just blogged exactly that.

Hirhurim links to an article on the Gush VBM site which describes the Rav's philosophy. It seems that every major Jewish thinker of the 20th Century, including the Rav, Rav Kook, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, Rabbi Louis Jacobs, etc. etc. etc., all said the same thing. Faith is based on experience, not rational proofs.

Now I'm sure the skeptics will scoff at this and say the reason why everyone falls back on experience is because the rational proofs just aren't there. Maybe so. But you shouldn't discount experience so quickly either.

At the end of the day, it all boils down to this:

The skeptical and the religious worldview are both ultimately equally incomprehensible to the human mind. Each have their issues, and it is beyond human capability to rationally determine which one is true. The only rational stance is agnosticism.

However the human soul, for the most part, seems to have a preference for the religious worldview. If the mind can't decide, then it seems reasonable to defer to the soul on this, especially since it has such a strong opinion. As for specific religions, that's a different question. But in the 'religion most likely to be true' category, Judaism does pretty well.

The God Genome

[Hat tip: A Lakewood bochur]

February 19, 2006
'Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon,' by Daniel C. Dennett


THE question of the place of science in human life is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical question. Scientism, the view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions, mental as well as physical, is a superstition, one of the dominant superstitions of our day; and it is not an insult to science to say so. For a sorry instance of present-day scientism, it would be hard to improve on Daniel C. Dennett's book. "Breaking the Spell" is a work of considerable historical interest, because it is a merry anthology of contemporary superstitions.

The orthodoxies of evolutionary psychology are all here, its tiresome way of roaming widely but never leaving its house, its legendary curiosity that somehow always discovers the same thing. The excited materialism of American society — I refer not to the American creed of shopping, according to which a person's qualities may be known by a person's brands, but more ominously to the adoption by American culture of biological, economic and technological ways of describing the purposes of human existence — abounds in Dennett's usefully uninhibited pages. And Dennett's book is also a document of the intellectual havoc of our infamous polarization, with its widespread and deeply damaging assumption that the most extreme statement of an idea is its most genuine statement. Dennett lives in a world in which you must believe in the grossest biologism or in the grossest theism, in a purely naturalistic understanding of religion or in intelligent design, in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in 19th-century England or in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in the sky.

In his own opinion, Dennett is a hero. He is in the business of emancipation, and he reveres himself for it. "By asking for an accounting of the pros and cons of religion, I risk getting poked in the nose or worse," he declares, "and yet I persist." Giordano Bruno, with tenure at Tufts! He wonders whether religious people "will have the intellectual honesty and courage to read this book through." If you disagree with what Dennett says, it is because you fear what he says. Any opposition to his scientistic deflation of religion he triumphantly dismisses as "protectionism." But people who share Dennett's view of the world he calls "brights." Brights are not only intellectually better, they are also ethically better. Did you know that "brights have the lowest divorce rate in the United States, and born-again Christians the highest"? Dennett's own "sacred values" are "democracy, justice, life, love and truth." This rigs things nicely. If you refuse his "impeccably hardheaded and rational ontology," then your sacred values must be tyranny, injustice, death, hatred and falsehood. Dennett is the sort of rationalist who gives reason a bad name; and in a new era of American obscurantism, this is not helpful.

Dennett flatters himself that he is Hume's heir. Hume began "The Natural History of Religion," a short incendiary work that was published in 1757, with this remark: "As every enquiry which regards religion is of the utmost importance, there are two questions in particular which challenge our attention, to wit, that concerning its foundation in reason, and that concerning its origin in human nature." These words serve as the epigraph to Dennett's introduction to his own conception of "religion as a natural phenomenon." "Breaking the Spell" proposes to answer Hume's second question, not least as a way of circumventing Hume's first question. Unfortunately, Dennett gives a misleading impression of Hume's reflections on religion. He chooses not to reproduce the words that immediately follow those in which he has just basked: "Happily, the first question, which is the most important, admits of the most obvious, at least, the clearest, solution. The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion."

So was Hume not a bright? I do not mean to be pedantic. Hume deplored religion as a source of illusions and crimes, and renounced its consolations even as he was dying. His God was a very wan god. But his God was still a god; and so his theism is as true or false as any other theism. The truth of religion cannot be proved by showing that a skeptic was in his way a believer, or by any other appeal to authority. There is no intellectually honorable surrogate for rational argument. Dennett's misrepresentation of Hume (and his similar misrepresentation of William James and Thomas Nagel) is noteworthy, therefore, because it illustrates his complacent refusal to acknowledge the dense and vital relations between religion and reason, not only historically but also philosophically.

For Dennett, thinking historically absolves one of thinking philosophically. Is the theistic account of the cosmos true or false? Dennett, amazingly, does not care. "The goal of either proving or disproving God's existence," he concludes, is "not very important." It is history, not philosophy, that will break religion's spell. The story of religion's development will extirpate it. "In order to explain the hold that various religious ideas and practices have on people," he writes, "we need to understand the evolution of the human mind." What follows is, in brief, Dennett's natural history of religion. It begins with the elementary assertion that "everything that moves needs something like a mind, to keep it out of harm's way and help it find the good things." To this end, there arose in very ancient times the evolutionary adaptation that one researcher has called a "hyperactive agent detection device, or HADD." This cognitive skill taught us, or a very early version of us, that we live in a world of other minds — and taught us too well, because it instilled "the urge to treat things — especially frustrating things — as agents with beliefs and desires." This urge is "deeply rooted in human biology," and it results in a "fantasy-generation process" that left us "finding agency wherever anything puzzles or frightens us."

Eventually this animism issued in deities, who were simply the "agents who had access to all the strategic information" that we desperately lacked. "But what good to us is the gods' knowledge if we can't get it from them?" So eventually shamans arose who told us what we wanted to hear from the gods, and did so by means of hypnosis. (Our notion of God is the product of this "hypnotizability-enabler" in our brains, and it may even be that theism is owed to a "gene for heightened hypnotizability," which would be an acceptable version of a "God gene.") To secure these primitive constructs and comforts against oblivion, ritual was invented; and they were further secured by "acts of deceit" that propounded their "systematic invulnerability to disproof." Folk religions became organized religions. The "trade secrets" of the shamans were transmitted to "every priest and minister, every imam and rabbi." Slowly and steadily, these "trade secrets" were given the more comprehensive protection of "belief in belief," the idea that certain convictions are so significant that they must be insulated from the pressures of reason. "The belief that belief in God is so important that it must not be subjected to the risks of disconfirmation or serious criticism," Dennett instructs, "has led the devout to 'save' their beliefs by making them incomprehensible even to themselves." In sum, we were HADD. Here endeth the lesson.

There are a number of things that must be said about this story. The first is that it is only a story. It is not based, in any strict sense, on empirical research. Dennett is "extrapolating back to human prehistory with the aid of biological thinking," nothing more. "Breaking the Spell" is a fairy tale told by evolutionary biology. There is no scientific foundation for its scientistic narrative. Even Dennett admits as much: "I am not at all claiming that this is what science has established about religion. . . . We don't yet know." So all of Dennett's splashy allegiance to evidence and experiment and "generating further testable hypotheses" notwithstanding, what he has written is just an extravagant speculation based upon his hope for what is the case, a pious account of his own atheistic longing.

And why is Dennett so certain that the origins of a thing are the most illuminating features of a thing, or that a thing is forever as primitive as its origins? Has Dennett never seen a flower grow from the dust? Or is it the dust that he sees in a flower? "Breaking the Spell" is a long, hectoring exercise in unexamined originalism. In perhaps the most flattening passage in the book, Dennett surmises that "all our 'intrinsic' values started out as instrumental values," and that this conviction about the primacy of the instrumental is a solemn requirement of science. He remarks that the question cui bono? — who benefits? — "is even more central in evolutionary biology than in the law," and so we must seek the biological utilities of what might otherwise seem like "a gratuitous outlay." An anxiety about the reality of nonbiological meanings troubles Dennett's every page. But it is very hard to envisage the biological utilities of such gratuitous outlays as "The Embarkation for Cythera" and Fermat's theorem and the "Missa Solemnis."

It will be plain that Dennett's approach to religion is contrived to evade religion's substance. He thinks that an inquiry into belief is made superfluous by an inquiry into the belief in belief. This is a very revealing mistake. You cannot disprove a belief unless you disprove its content. If you believe that you can disprove it any other way, by describing its origins or by describing its consequences, then you do not believe in reason. In this profound sense, Dennett does not believe in reason. He will be outraged to hear this, since he regards himself as a giant of rationalism. But the reason he imputes to the human creatures depicted in his book is merely a creaturely reason. Dennett's natural history does not deny reason, it animalizes reason. It portrays reason in service to natural selection, and as a product of natural selection. But if reason is a product of natural selection, then how much confidence can we have in a rational argument for natural selection? The power of reason is owed to the independence of reason, and to nothing else. (In this respect, rationalism is closer to mysticism than it is to materialism.) Evolutionary biology cannot invoke the power of reason even as it destroys it.

Like many biological reductionists, Dennett is sure that he is not a biological reductionist. But the charge is proved as early as the fourth page of his book. Watch closely. "Like other animals," the confused passage begins, "we have built-in desires to reproduce and to do pretty much whatever it takes to achieve this goal." No confusion there, and no offense. It is incontrovertible that we are animals. The sentence continues: "But we also have creeds, and the ability to transcend our genetic imperatives." A sterling observation, and the beginning of humanism. And then more, in the same fine antideterministic vein: "This fact does make us different."

Then suddenly there is this: "But it is itself a biological fact, visible to natural science, and something that requires an explanation from natural science." As the ancient rabbis used to say, have your ears heard what your mouth has spoken? Dennett does not see that he has taken his humanism back. Why is our independence from biology a fact of biology? And if it is a fact of biology, then we are not independent of biology. If our creeds are an expression of our animality, if they require an explanation from natural science, then we have not transcended our genetic imperatives. The human difference, in Dennett's telling, is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind — a doctrine that may quite plausibly be called biological reductionism.

Dennett is unable to imagine a fact about us that is not a biological fact. His book is riddled with translations of emotions and ideas into evo-psychobabble. "It is in the genetic interests of parents . . . to inform — not misinform — their young, so it is efficient (and relatively safe) to trust one's parents." Grief for the death of a loved one is "a major task of cognitive updating: revising all our habits of thought to fit a world with one less familiar intentional system in it." "Marriage rituals and taboos against adultery, clothing and hairstyles, breath fresheners and pornography and condoms and H.I.V. and all the rest" have their "ancient but ongoing source" in the organism's need to thwart parasites. "The phenomenon of romantic love" may be adequately understood by reference to "the unruly marketplace of human mate-finding." And finally, the general rule: "Everything we value — from sugar and sex and money to music and love and religion — we value for reasons. Lying behind, and distinct from, our reasons are evolutionary reasons, free-floating rationales that have been endorsed by natural selection." Never mind the merits of materialism as an analysis of the world. As an attitude to life, it represents a collapse of wisdom. So steer clear of "we materialists" in your dark hours. They cannot fortify you, say, after the funeral of a familiar intentional system.

BEFORE there were naturalist superstitions, there were supernaturalist superstitions. The crudities of religious myth are plentiful, and a sickening amount of savagery has been perpetrated in their name. Yet the excesses of naturalism cannot hide behind the excesses of supernaturalism. Or more to the point, the excesses of naturalism cannot live without the excesses of supernaturalism. Dennett actually prefers folk religion to intellectual religion, because it is nearer to the instinctual mire that enchants him. The move "away from concrete anthropomorphism to ever more abstract and depersonalized concepts," or the increasing philosophical sophistication of religion over the centuries, he views only as "strategic belief-maintenance." He cannot conceive of a thoughtful believer. He writes often, and with great indignation, of religion's strictures against doubts and criticisms, when in fact the religious traditions are replete with doubts and criticisms. Dennett is unacquainted with the distinction between fideism and faith. Like many of the fundamentalists whom he despises, he is a literalist in matters of religion. [Sounds like someone I know]

But why must we read literally in the realm of religion, when in so many other realms of human expression we read metaphorically, allegorically, symbolically, figuratively, analogically? We see kernels and husks everywhere. [Yes!] There are concepts in many of the fables of faith, philosophical propositions about the nature of the universe. They may be right or they may be wrong, but they are there. Dennett recognizes the uses of faith, but not its reasons. In the end, his repudiation of religion is a repudiation of philosophy, which is also an affair of belief in belief. What this shallow and self-congratulatory book establishes most conclusively is that there are many spells that need to be broken.

Can one say Myth/Moshol in Shemos?

It seems that the only way to reconcile Shemos with history is to say that parts of the story (specifically the number of people involved) are exaggerated, or mythological. Can such a mehalech actually work?

It’s interesting that both the arch-skeptics and the fundamentalists are united on this topic. They both claim that 600,000 males (2 million total) fleeing Egypt and standing at Sinai is such a fundamental pillar of Judaism that once you remove it, the whole structure crumbles.

Imagine it’s five hundred years ago and you ask your local Orthodox community why they keep Shabbos. Every Orthodox man, woman and child would tell you with absolute conviction that it’s because God created the world in 6 days and rested on the seventh.

Now imagine you told them that you think God created the world over billions of years, yet we still keep Shabbos. Would they be convinced? No doubt they would argue fiercely that the 6 days of creation are an absolute fundamental of Judaism. Actually, some people in Bnei Brak still argue that today. But the majority of enlightened Jews, even many Chareidim, are not bothered by that. We have come to accept that Shabbos I still Shabbos even if the world wasn’t created in 6 days.

Now lets talk about Shemos. A small Exodus is still an Exodus. And a revelation from God is an earth shattering event whether 600,000 people are standing there or whether 60,000 people are standing there. The story is hardly diminished at all, certainly much less so than 6 days and Shabbos. Even the kiruv clown version of the Kuzari proof (such as it is) is barely diminished, since 60,000 people would still have been a sizeable number, certainly relative to other populations at the time.

Why are the people who are so eager to kvetch in Breishis and claim a local flood, even though it totally doesn’t fit the text, and entirely destroys the drama of the whole story, suddenly so reticent in Shemos? A guy in a boat with some animals is not Noach and the Mabul. A guy on a mountain getting the Torah is still Moshe getting the Torah. The size of the audience is not important.

I guess the issue is that the story of Noach would have been ancient history for the Bnei Yisrael in the desert, and so a mythological or misleading story of Noach is somehow acceptable or understandable. However the Exodous would have been a recent event, so it makes no sense for the Torah to exaggerate. Its not that a small Exodus is itself a problem, but rather that the Torah's account of what should have been 'current events' is innacurate, and it only really makes sense if the Torah was written many years later, after the events happened (or didn't).

Unless of course you say that the original Torah had the story straight, and only the reconstituted Torah that Ezra put together messed it up. But only a 'kofer' like R Halivni would say something like that.

The New Scientist is mechazek my emunah!!!

Wow, check this out. The New Scientist says exactly what I have been saying. Uncanny! In an article from last week's issue about the beauty of Science, it says:

In 1957, experimental evidence weighed heavily against Murray Gell-Mann and Richard Feynman's theory of weak interactions. As we saw, Feynman had declared that the theory "had elegance and beauty. The goddamn thing was gleaming". In other words, it had an inner perfection that suggested it could be generalised further, it hinted at how to unify the weak and electromagnetic interactions, and its mathematical representation was the simplest that could be constructed.

Despite the high reputation of the physicists responsible for the actual experiments, Feynman and Gell-Mann's response was that there was something wrong with the experiments. They were right. Thus although experiments are essential for scientific theories, certain theories are just too important - too beautiful, one could say - to be discarded when the experiments don't go your way. Perhaps in the future beauty will provide an important criterion for selecting one theory over another, now that theories are emerging which cannot be verified by experimentation as we know it today.

And in another great quote from the same article, the author goes positively kabbalistic:

Why is symmetry so important? Why is it the term that scientists use synonymously with beauty? For many, it goes back to that fraction of a second after the big bang, some 13.7 billion years ago, when there was only one force - an instant of purest symmetry. When this symmetry was broken, the four forces of the physical world emerged: the gravitational, electromagnetic, nuclear and weak forces. The universe is now seen as being made up of broken symmetries. What scientists are trying to do is to find this primordial symmetry by hypothesising other symmetries that unify these four forces.

The Rambam was right. Science is the key to emunah. One day we will all realize this.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Skeptics on Areivim!!!

There’s a funny debate going on over at Areivim right now, titled ‘Moshvei Leitzim’. Areivim doesn't like people posting their stuff in public, so I shall just have to summarize it. Some commenters are asserting that most of the JBlogs (probably talking about me) are just a bunch of leitzonim who don’t encourage fair debate. One guy even says that only Hirhurim encourages open and honest dialog. Oh please, what a bunch of baloney. Only a skeptical blog could possibly encourage open debate, because the ‘frum’ blogs by definition have to avoid it.

My impression is that some of the people on Areivim are just sore losers. They like to think that they are an elite intellectual bunch of individuals, and only they are qualified to discuss such important matters as whether Breishis is literally true or not, and only then on the basis of careful readings of the Rishonim. When I point out that they are a bunch of lunatics because of course Breishis cannot possibly be literally true and of course the Rishonim had no clue because modern science hadn’t been invented yet they get a bit upset.

Get over yourselves guys. You’re not that great. I might not be able to quote obscure Rishonim like you can, but I have enough sechel to know baloney when I see it. And there’s plenty of it on Areivim (and kal vechomer on Avodah). Anyone who can have a long discussion about whether the world is ancient or not is an idiot.

Does my summary dismissal of the fundamentalist viewpoint mean that I am not open to fair debate? No, it means I don’t waste my time debating nonsense with idiots. I might as well accuse Areivim of unfair debate because they won’t seriously consider that Zoboomafoo planted the Torah as a Nissayon. And actually, I am quite polite to fundies who venture onto my blog. I was very polite to Lakewood Yid for example. I view these people as nebach tinok shenishbahs bein hachareidim, it’s not their fault, they have my sympathy. I am not polite to people who should know better though.

What’s funny is seeing all the commenters from my blog comment there with their real names. I won’t out anyone of course but it’s rather amusing seeing Bishul and others over there. Hey guys, aren’t you concerned about using your real names? I don’t think Reb Mattisyahu is going to be too happy about your participation on Areivim, even if you are attacking the pseudo-intellectuals (talk about the pot calling the kettle black).

Even funnier is that I see a number of the hard core skeptics are on Areivim. This is quite ironic. Do the Areivim moderators not realize this? I guess not. I suppose it’s impossible for them to run ‘background checks’ on their subscribers, and even if they could, it wouldn’t help since these skeptics are very well hidden. I suppose they could close the list off to everyone but a core group, but then what would be the point? Nobody else on the Internet would then be able to see the gadlus inherent in spending weeks debating whether the Universe is older than 6000 years old or not.

Kudos to Gil though who defends the blogs, and shame on Micha Berger who attacks them. The proof is in the pudding. And the pudding a.k.a the hit counters here, on DovBear and elsewhere show that people come to our blogs for honest and open discussion. If it was one sided, they wouldn’t come. The real truth is that Micha and friends cannot possibly discuss any of these issues with an open mind. Firstly, because they don’t have one, and secondly even if they did, they still couldn’t, for obvious social and communal reasons.

Face it guys: You have some good stuff to contribute I’m sure, but when it comes to getting to the bottom of these kind of issues, you’re not much use at all.

I still like your blogs though.

Skeptical about Shemos? Read on…

Warning: This post is a potential emunah threat. This post is not for small children or naïve people from Lakewood. If you have no doubt that all of Breishis is literally true, then you can read on, because clearly nothing anyone says is ever going to affect your emunah in any way. On the other hand, if you have been persuaded that Breishis is not quite literally true, but think Shemos is fine, then maybe you should go read Hirhurim or Cross Currents instead. This post is only for those who already have doubts about Shemos.

Clearly, it would be remiss not to talk about Shemos. I have been putting it off for a number of reasons, including:

• I am not as fluent in history and archeology as I am in basic science
• It’s much more fun to argue about global floods and dinosaurs
• The stakes are way too high in Shemos

But we can’t put it off any longer. Last week, Rabbi Neil Gillman’s ‘dvar torah’ in the Jewish Week basically laid out the skeptical approach to Shemos: There is some basic element of truth to it, but as the story got retold and retold over the generations the facts became rather exaggerated'. I guess that’s what most Conservative Jews hold, but as Mis-nagid says, Joseph Smith probably did wear a hat, so that view of hisory isn't very useful.

So, let’s investigate the issues with Shemos. First, let’s discuss them purely objectively from an impartial perspective, and at the end we’ll talk about Faith. The basic assumption for this discussion is that God exists and that He interacts with the world. If you are an atheist or a deist, then clearly the key religious elements of Shemos are not possible, whether the rest of it is historically accurate or not.

There are five main topics to discuss:

1. The Plagues
2. The Escape of 2 million people
3. Kriyat Yam Suf & Other Miracles (Man etc)
4. Revelation at Sinai
5. Conquest of Canaan

(Yes, I know the conquest is not in Shemos, but we might as well address it now.)

1. The Plagues
There have been numerous attempts to explain the plagues in a naturalistic way. Indeed, the plagues themselves are mostly the typical kind of thing you get in Egypt, and even the ones that aren’t, can seemingly be explained fairly simply. For example, the Nile turns red each year due to algae, so maybe ‘dam’ means blood red rather than actual blood. Most explanations falter at the last plague, but I have even seen a naturalistic explanation for that too. For a believer in God though, the issue with the plagues is not so much how they could have happened, but whether history records them as having happened. We have no problems with miracles, as long as the miracle is as recorded in the Torah, and you don’t have to invent a bunch of very strange ‘after the fact’ miracles to explain away the total lack of evidence, or even opposing evidence, as with the flood. So, is it feasible that these plagues happened to Egypt and left no evidence? There is the famous ‘Ipuwer Manuscript’ which seems to talk about the plagues, and it is understandable that the Egyptians did not write about them much. Plus, the plagues would not really have left much geological or archeological evidence.

In summary, the emunah threat from the plagues is (relatively) low. You could go with either a naturalistic explanation or a miraculous one, and be okay.

2. The Escape
The Torah recounts that all the Bnei Yisrael, including an Erev Rav escaped from Egypt. Shortly afterwards the Torah counts the males as being about 600,000, which would imply a total population of around 2 million. This means that about 2 million people (ex slaves + hangers on) left Egypt suddenly. This is highly unlikely. First of all, this would have been a gigantic number by the standards in those days. The entire global population was much less than today. Secondly the movement of such a large number of people strains credibility. The Torah mentions many miracles, but it does not seem to imply that the movement of 2 million people out of Egypt is one of them. Even worse, such a gigantic event would surely have been recorded somewhere (besides the Torah), yet there is no trace of this anywhere else in recorded history

There is really no good way around this problem. From a rational perspective, the Torah’s account here is not very credible.

In summary: Emunah Threat very high

3. Kriyat Yam Suf & Other Miracles

I don’t really see any problems here, apart from the impossible numbers. God can do miracles if He wants to. There are also naturalistic explanations for the kriyat yam suf, the manna, and most of the other miracles too, though that approach would still require you to kvetch the text rather a lot.

In summary: Emunah Threat medium.

4. Revelation at Sinai
For a believer in God, it seems natural to assume that God could and maybe would communicate with His creation. Or, at the very least, would enable His creation (i.e. man) to intuit or become Divinely Inspired to figure out the goal in life, and the way to reach that goal. The story of Sinai does sound like a typical volcanic eruption story though, which is a little troubling. Then again, none of the other volcano stories finished up with the 10 commandments being given, so that was definitely a first.

In summary: Emunah Threat low.

5.Conquest of Canaan
Archeological evidence does not corroborate the Torah’s account of a massive invasion and conquest of Canaan. Archeologists debate about how much truth there is to the Biblical account, but as the Torah’s numbers are impossible anyway from a rational perspective, nobody takes a huge scale invasion of 2 million people very seriously. The evidence here seems to be strong, but archeology is kinda fuzzy, plus the full details of the conquest are in Nach, not the Torah, so I’ll just rate this one a low emunah threat.

Overall the shemos story loses credibility for two primary reasons:

1. The number of people involved is in itself not credible, considering population sizes at that time and the issues surrounding moving 2 million people quickly out of Egypt.
2. The scale and magnitude of the events would have left some record somewhere, in either archeological or other historical documents. There is none. The Torah and even more so the Midrashim only make this problem worse by implying that the whole world knew of these events. Maybe you can say Egyptians didn’t record anything because they had been defeated, but why didn’t any other nations record something?

There are a number of approaches to these problems, mostly pretty similar to the approaches in Breishis, but with some twists.

1. Ness/Nissayon

Everything in this story that is not explainable by (or is in conflict with) Science, Archeology, History etc. was/is a Ness and a Nissayon. This doesn’t work as well here as in Breishis, since with Breishis the Ness/Nissayonists have some slight crutches to lean on – the Gemarah that Adam was created fully formed, the notion that the Mabul waters were ‘magical’ and thus didn’t leave normal traces. With Shemos however, why would there be no evidence of such a monumental set of events? Did Hashem remove all traces of documentation or whatever davkah as a nIssayon? Seems very strange.

2. Myth/Moshol
We can say that all these events, whilst having a kernel of truth are basically mythology. However this is very difficult. While it may be acceptable in Breishis, it’s much harder to say this in Shemos, since the Torah was supposedly given right after these events occurred, so the Bnei Yisrael would surely have know what actually happened. How would they have accepted a mythological/moshological account of the current events? Unless they knew it to be exaggerated and they didn’t mind. Not a very credible peshat here, unless you say the Torah was written many years later, when people had forgotten the original events. Of course this doesn’t do much good for the Kiruv Clown Kuzari Proof.

3. Kiruv/Kvetch
The kvetchers would say that we can take the account non literally in places. For example, some people say that ‘eleph’ in the census does not mean thousand, but instead means a family clan, or maybe an army troop. Kvetching actually works better in Shemos than it does in Breishis. I am strongly opposed to the whole ‘local flood’ theory in Breishis, since that is clearly not the sense of the Noach story. A story about a man, a small boat, some pets and a local flood is not the story of the Mabul. However in Shemos it’s a bit different. A story about 20,000 slaves escaping from Egypt and then having a revelation from God at Sinai is still one heck of a story. So while kvetching would seem to be somewhat disingenuous, it doesn’t do as much violence to the overall story here.

There is of course much more to be said on this subject. From a rational perspective, the story in Shemos is not credible, by normal standards that we all use in other areas of every day life. It’s not just a problem of absence of evidence. Clearly, the absence of evidence is enough here to be counted as evidence of absence. The big question is, how strong is the evidence against the story? Strong enough to counter faith or not strong enough? The answer to this question will be different for each person.

My own point of view is that I will have faith as long as there is not hard evidence against it. I think there is hard evidence against the 2 million number, and so I cannot really accept that at this current time. Once you downsize the numbers, the problem of lack of evidence goes away, since a small escape would not have had global ramifications. The rest of the story (miracles etc) is basically okay (with a few tweaks). Of course the text still has to be dealt with. What I do with the text is the subject of another post. (Hint: It’s not kiruv kvetch.)

Mussar Shmmoze
I would like to end off this piece of skeptical thinking with a mussar shmooz.

Rabbosai, the Ribbono shel Olom put us on this Earth for a reason. We may not have all the answers, and everything may not add up. But if God exists (and we believe it’s likely that He does), then it’s unlikely He just created us and walked away. This implies that He is watching and listening to everything that goes on over here, or at least He might be. Imagine if you really, really felt this. I mean really, really, really felt this. Could you be mevatel even one second? Could you be rude even one time to your spouse, or to your parents? Could you do one averah? Even if you are an agnostic or weak atheist, if this really was a possibility could you possibly ignore it? I don’t think so. In fact, if you really, really, really, really felt it, you would probably be paralyzed with fear and wouldn’t be able to do anything at all, never mind any aveiros. As many even very frum yidden are quite comfortable doing at least some aveiros, it’s clear that very few people even amongst the maaminim really feel God’s presence, certainly not all the time. May it be God’s will that we feel His presence, if not all the time, at least some of the time.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Boruch Hashem We're Not Mormons!

Bedrock of a Faith Is Jolted
DNA tests contradict Mormon scripture. The church says the studies are being twisted to attack its beliefs.
By William Lobdell
Times Staff Writer

February 16, 2006

From the time he was a child in Peru, the Mormon Church instilled in Jose A. Loayza the conviction that he and millions of other Native Americans were descended from a lost tribe of Israel that reached the New World more than 2,000 years ago.

"We were taught all the blessings of that Hebrew lineage belonged to us and that we were special people," said Loayza, now a Salt Lake City attorney. "It not only made me feel special, but it gave me a sense of transcendental identity, an identity with God."

A few years ago, Loayza said, his faith was shaken and his identity stripped away by DNA evidence showing that the ancestors of American natives came from Asia, not the Middle East.

"I've gone through stages," he said. "Absolutely denial. Utter amazement and surprise. Anger and bitterness."

For Mormons, the lack of discernible Hebrew blood in Native Americans is no minor collision between faith and science. It burrows into the historical foundations of the Book of Mormon, a 175-year-old transcription that the church regards as literal and without error.

For those outside the faith, the depth of the church's dilemma can be explained this way: Imagine if DNA evidence revealed that the Pilgrims didn't sail from Europe to escape religious persecution but rather were part of a migration from Iceland — and that U.S. history books were wrong.

Critics want the church to admit its mistake and apologize to millions of Native Americans it converted. Church leaders have shown no inclination to do so. Indeed, they have dismissed as heresy any suggestion that Native American genetics undermine the Mormon creed.

Yet at the same time, the church has subtly promoted a fresh interpretation of the Book of Mormon intended to reconcile the DNA findings with the scriptures. This analysis is radically at odds with long-standing Mormon teachings.

Some longtime observers believe that ultimately, the vast majority of Mormons will disregard the genetic research as an unworthy distraction from their faith.

"This may look like the crushing blow to Mormonism from the outside," said Jan Shipps, a professor emeritus of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, who has studied the church for 40 years. "But religion ultimately does not rest on scientific evidence, but on mystical experiences. There are different ways of looking at truth."

According to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an angel named Moroni led Joseph Smith in 1827 to a divine set of golden plates buried in a hillside near his New York home.

God provided the 22-year-old Smith with a pair of glasses and seer stones that allowed him to translate the "Reformed Egyptian" writings on the golden plates into the "Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ."

Mormons believe these scriptures restored the church to God's original vision and left the rest of Christianity in a state of apostasy.

The book's narrative focuses on a tribe of Jews who sailed from Jerusalem to the New World in 600 BC and split into two main warring factions.

The God-fearing Nephites were "pure" (the word was officially changed from "white" in 1981) and "delightsome." The idol-worshiping Lamanites received the "curse of blackness," turning their skin dark.

According to the Book of Mormon, by 385 AD the dark-skinned Lamanites had wiped out other Hebrews. The Mormon church called the victors "the principal ancestors of the American Indians." If the Lamanites returned to the church, their skin could once again become white.

Over the years, church prophets — believed by Mormons to receive revelations from God — and missionaries have used the supposed ancestral link between the ancient Hebrews and Native Americans and later Polynesians as a prime conversion tool in Central and South America and the South Pacific.

"As I look into your faces, I think of Father Lehi [patriarch of the Lamanites], whose sons and daughters you are," church president and prophet Gordon B. Hinckley said in 1997 during a Mormon conference in Lima, Peru. "I think he must be shedding tears today, tears of love and gratitude…. This is but the beginning of the work in Peru."

In recent decades, Mormonism has flourished in those regions, which now have nearly 4 million members — about a third of Mormon membership worldwide, according to church figures.

"That was the big sell," said Damon Kali, an attorney who practices law in Sunnyvale, Calif., and is descended from Pacific Islanders. "And quite frankly, that was the big sell for me. I was a Lamanite. I was told the day of the Lamanite will come."

A few months into his two-year mission in Peru, Kali stopped trying to convert the locals. Scientific articles about ancient migration patterns had made him doubt that he or anyone else was a Lamanite.

"Once you do research and start getting other viewpoints, you're toast," said Kali, who said he was excommunicated in 1996 over issues unrelated to the Lamanite issue. "I could not do missionary work anymore."

Critics of the Book of Mormon have long cited anachronisms in its narrative to argue that it is not the work of God. For instance, the Mormon scriptures contain references to a seven-day week, domesticated horses, cows and sheep, silk, chariots and steel. None had been introduced in the Americas at the time of Christ.

In the 1990s, DNA studies gave Mormon detractors further ammunition and new allies such as Simon G. Southerton, a molecular biologist and former bishop in the church.

Southerton, a senior research scientist with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia, said genetic research allowed him to test his religious views against his scientific training.

Genetic testing of Jews throughout the world had already shown that they shared common strains of DNA from the Middle East. Southerton examined studies of DNA lineages among Polynesians and indigenous peoples in North, Central and South America. One mapped maternal DNA lines from 7,300 Native Americans from 175 tribes.

Southerton found no trace of Middle Eastern DNA in the genetic strands of today's American Indians and Pacific Islanders.

In "Losing a Lost Tribe," published in 2004, he concluded that Mormonism — his faith for 30 years — needed to be reevaluated in the face of these facts, even though it would shake the foundations of the faith.

The problem is that Mormon leaders cannot acknowledge any factual errors in the Book of Mormon because the prophet Joseph Smith proclaimed it the "most correct of any book on Earth," Southerton said in an interview.

"They can't admit that it's not historical," Southerton said. "They would feel that there would be a loss of members and loss in confidence in Joseph Smith as a prophet."

Officially, the Mormon Church says that nothing in the Mormon scriptures is incompatible with DNA evidence, and that the genetic studies are being twisted to attack the church.

"We would hope that church members would not simply buy into the latest DNA arguments being promulgated by those who oppose the church for some reason or other," said Michael Otterson, a Salt Lake City-based spokesman for the Mormon church.

"The truth is, the Book of Mormon will never be proved or disproved by science," he said.

Unofficially, church leaders have tacitly approved an alternative interpretation of the Book of Mormon by church apologists — a term used for scholars who defend the faith.

The apologists say Southerton and others are relying on a traditional reading of the Book of Mormon — that the Hebrews were the first and sole inhabitants of the New World and eventually populated the North and South American continents.

The latest scholarship, they argue, shows that the text should be interpreted differently. They say the events described in the Book of Mormon were confined to a small section of Central America, and that the Hebrew tribe was small enough that its DNA was swallowed up by the existing Native Americans.

"It would be a virtual certainly that their DNA would be swamped," said Daniel Peterson, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, part of the worldwide Mormon educational system, and editor of a magazine devoted to Mormon apologetics. "And if that is the case, you couldn't tell who was a Lamanite descendant."

Southerton said the new interpretation was counter to both a plain reading of the text and the words of Mormon leaders.

"The apologists feel that they are almost above the prophets," Southerton said. "They have completely reinvented the narrative in a way that would be completely alien to members of the church and most of the prophets."

The church has not formally endorsed the apologists' views, but the official website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — http://www.lds.org — cites their work and provides links to it.

"They haven't made any explicit public declarations," said Armand L. Mauss, a church member and retired Washington State University professor who recently published a book on Mormon race and lineage. "But operationally, that is the current church's position."

The DNA debate is largely limited to church leaders, academics and a relatively small circle of church critics. Most Mormons, taught that obedience is a key value, take the Book of Mormon as God's unerring word.

"It's not that Mormons are not curious," Mauss said. "They just don't see the need to reconsider what has already been decided."

Critics contend that Mormon leaders are quick to stifle dissent. In 2002, church officials began an excommunication proceeding against Thomas W. Murphy, an anthropology professor at Edmonds Community College in Washington state.

He was deemed a heretic for saying the Mormon scriptures should be considered inspired fiction in light of the DNA evidence.

After the controversy attracted national media coverage, with Murphy's supporters calling him the Galileo of Mormonism, church leaders halted the trial.

Loayza, the Salt Lake City attorney, said the church should embrace the controversy.

"They should openly address it," he said. "Often, the tack they adopt is to just ignore or refrain from any opinion. We should have the courage of our convictions. This [Lamanite issue] is potentially destructive to the faith."

Otterson, the church spokesman, said Mormon leaders would remain neutral. "Whether Book of Mormon geography is extensive or limited or how much today's Native Americans reflect the genetic makeup of the Book of Mormon peoples has absolutely no bearing on its central message as a testament of Jesus Christ," he said.

Mauss said the DNA studies haven't shaken his faith. "There's not very much in life — not only in religion or any field of inquiry — where you can feel you have all the answers," he said.

"I'm willing to live in ambiguity. I don't get that bothered by things I can't resolve in a week."

For others, living with ambiguity has been more difficult. Phil Ormsby, a Polynesian who lives in Brisbane, Australia, grew up believing he was a Hebrew.

"I visualized myself among the fighting Lamanites and lived out the fantasies of the [Book of Mormon] as I read it," Ormsby said. "It gave me great mana [prestige] to know that these were my true ancestors."

The DNA studies have altered his feelings completely.

"Some days I am angry, and some days I feel pity," he said. "I feel pity for my people who have become obsessed with something that is nothing but a hoax."

Another mehalech in Noach?

There is another option with Noach, for those who really like to think that Noach actually existed. I suppose you could say there was someone called Noach, who was miraculously saved from a devastating flood by God. Why is the Torah interested in the story of Noach? I guess because he was the ancestor of Avraham. Or maybe for some other lessons.

Of course to fit with science, the drama of the whole Noach story is totally gone. It was just a flood like many others, many survived and many did not. Plus there probably were not many animals on the boat, unless he had his pets and maybe some livestock with him. Probably also was a very very small boat, not something with more square footage than a Nimitz Class Aircraft carrier. Also the 120 years worth of building is not likely, considering that nobody in those days lived much past 70.

According to this interpretation, you get to keep Noach as a real person. However you have to say that the Torah totally exaggerated the story beyond all proportions. Which is worse? Saying the Torah contains mythology to teach some ethical lessons, or saying the Torah contains exaggerated stories?

According to the Mahartzu (as quoted by R Gil), there is an opinion that Breishis was actually written by the Avos (and Noach and whomever) and then included into the Torah by God (or Moshe on command of God). So I guess you can say that Noach was guilty of the exaggeration. And maybe we shouldn’t really blame him, because from Noach’s perspective, you can imagine things looked pretty bad. Maybe he was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

But if God knew the whole story was an exaggeration, caused by Noach’s PTSD, why didn’t He edit it out? I guess the answer is obvious – How can you question the mind of God?

And if you believe any of that, I have a furry lemur here who has something very important to tell you.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Noach Lo Hoyoh Veloh Yihyeh

The folks over on Avodah are still debating the Mabul. One guy has just discovered that there may have been a local flood in Mesopotamia about 6000 years ago! Yippeeee! So it must all be true then. Shame that the story of Noach actually describes a global wipeout, with every living animal on a boat, and then complete repopulation of the world afterwards.

Do you know how many words Noach speaks in the Chumash? 24. That's it. Just the blessings and the curses for his sons, right at the end of the story. There is plenty of God speaking to Noach, but Noach gets no lines at all. Plus, if you would actually bother to read the epic of Gilgamesh, the paralels are striking. (Kiruv Clowns: See! Noach must be true!).

When are you guys going to get it?!

From a rational perspective, IT DIDN'T HAPPEN.

There was no boat. There were no animals. There was no Noach. There was no global wipeout. The evidence is clear. And guess what? Believing Noach existed is not actually one of the ikkarim. I just checked. Twice.

Now, if you want to claim the whole thing is a ness, and God cleaned up all the evidence and then planted false evidence just to test our emunah then fine. Go ahead.

Personally, I would say it's just as logical to claim that Zoboomafoo planted all the evidence. But if you want to have faith in a bizzarre set of miracles then go right ahead. But at least admit it's all faith. There's no reason anywhere to be found.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Mussar From Anonymous

Anonymous wrote:

I've become convinced that the MO will not cure itself of its fundamental issue, not enough reverence for torah, and too much self-importance. That's why you bleed kids
to UO.


That criticism probably also applies to me just a teensy weensy bit, and for that I apologize. I was a little too lackadaisical yesterday in attributing acceptance of the Documentary Hypothesis to the Rav, Rav Kook and Rav YY Wienberg. Of course I was joking. Only Rav Kook accepted it.

But seriously, my Shabbat visitor, (a choshuv Rabbi not some blogger) insists that he has a source from Rav Kook about that. I believe him (I have to, he now reads my blog).

As for anonymous, cheer up! All is not lost. Maybe the Conservative Chareidim will have more reverence for Torah, without being too self important.

Take it to the limit one more time

The Rambam in the ikkarim said that Moshe received the Torah from God in the manner of one dictating to a scribe.

However in the Moreh Nevuchim the Rambam spends hundreds of pages showing how any corporeal descriptions of God are completely avodah zarah. There is no way that Rambam believes that God spoke to Moshe, or even that Moshe heard a voice inside his head. The Rambam’s view of prophecy is that there is a constant flow of ‘Divine Emanation’, and that anyone who has acquired sufficient intellectual skills and other quality character traits can tap into the flow, unless God specifically doesn’t allow you to.

In addition, the Rambam holds that all the Mitzvos are completely rational, even the chukim. There is no such thing as a Mitzvah without a good sensible reason, though we may not know all the reasons today. The Rambam also held that the intellect was capable of figuring out what God wanted from us. Put all this together and what do you have?

The Rambam held that Moshe intuited (by tapping into the Divine Emanation and by using his intellect) a set of rules and regulations which could help someone get close to God. Moshe didn’t just make them up stam, but figured them out by understanding what it was that God wants from us. Could Moshe have possibly come up with a different set of Halachos? I guess I would say maybe if he had lived in a different time, or under different circumstances, the Torah would have been different. Or maybe not.

Does this mean that the Halachot were not from God? I guess it depends on how you spin it. If Moshe intuited a perfect set of rules to help people achieve the correct goals, and he was assisted in this endeavor by a strong sense of spirituality, then maybe that’s enough?

So I’m just kinda rambling here, but I sense that there’s more to the Sinai concept than simply God spoke and Moshe wrote. A lot more. I guess I will just have to attend one of Rav Moshe Shapiro’s midnight machshavah shiurim to get the full scoop.

And by the way, regarding the ikkarim. They were social policies to set the boundaries of the Jewish religion in the 12th century. Kinda like Gedolim bans. While very important, they are not necessarily the absolute definition of what you have to believe to get into Olam Habah.

I think an old buddy of mine wrote a book about that.

Modern Orthodox Birthright

Everyone by now is familiar with the phenomenal success of Birthright, the program which gives secular teenagers free trips to Israel, and so solidifies (or in some cases creates) their Jewish identity. It’s a great program and a wonderful idea.

When I was a kid, my next door neighbor was quite chareidi, a lot more than I was. We were buddies, but every year, around Christmas time, he would go off to some event where the guest speaker was a famous Godol. As a Modern Orthodox child, I stayed home and watched TV.

In later life, I did attend some famous name Yeshivot, and had the opportunity to meet some ‘Gedolim’, though none of the really big ones. The Gedolim I met included:

  • Rav Shach (only from a distance and I could barely him)
  • Rav Mattisyahu Solomon (multiple conversations but I never really liked him)
  • Rav Moshe Shapiro (a couple of ‘good shabboses’ and that was about it)
Shame that I never got to meet any real Gedolim, for example Reb Moshe Feinstein or Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach.

More recently, I have had the opportunity to meet with the Modern Orthodox Gedolim, including:
  • Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (The ‘Chief’)
  • Rabbi Willig
  • Rabbi Emmanuel (I’m NOT Modern Orthodox) Feldman
Again, I never had the opportunity to meet the real big name MO Gedolim, like Rav YB Soloveitchik, or even R Aharon Lichtenstein (who according to one of my Rabbeim is the greatest Godol alive today). And this is a great shame, because in speaking to people like Steve Brizel, it seems that meeting and learning with great (real) Gedolim can be highly inspirational.

It seems to me that we need to extend the Birthright program for Modern Orthodox kids. Just like their secular counterparts are given free tickets to Israel, MO kids should be given free tickets to go visit the Gedolim.

In my MO Birthright Program I would take seniors at MO High Schools to visit the Gedolim, and spend time with them. Perhaps we can observe them doing some gemilus chasadim, or being moser nefesh in their learning. We could also get some shiurim, and have a no holds barred Q&A session, where the Gedolim promise to answer all questions (e.g. So is it really kefirah to say the Universe is older than 6,000 years?). I think this will be really inspirational for the kids.

Now all I need to get started is a couple of million from Bronfman.

The Post of The Year

S pointed out that my Science of Judaism post actually translates as 'die Wissenschaft des Judentums'. I hadn't even realized that, but if you think about it, it's really quite apt. Anyways, that post is still going strong, 600+ comments. Seems to be a record.

Der Alter even thinks that I was koneh Olam Habah with that post! Maybe so, I probably spread more Torah thinking with that post that some Rosh Yeshivos I could name. Nate liked the post too, and e-kvetcher lived up to his name and kvetched about it.

So what was it about that post that got people interested? The writing style? The passion? The (good natured) dig at Harry Maryles? Turns out my Rabbi was a bit miffed at the line about 'my typically disorganzied shul'. Ooops, sorry Rabbi. Not you of course, I meant the board.

I'm not sure what chord I struck (if any). The skeptics will no doubt have a naturalistic explanation, like I'm a really good writer or something like that. Chas vesholom! The only answer I can think of is 'It's Min Hashamyim'.

UPDATE: Ayelet liked it too.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Bes Medrash Govoha

Bes Medrash Govoha, oh mist rolling in from the lake
My desire
Is always to be here
Oh Bes Medrash Govoha

Many have I dated and many more on my list
12,000 dates but my bashert has been missed*
Down the Pallisades past Manhattan (lower)
Is the way I drive back to Bes Medrash Govoha

Bes Medrash Govoha, oh mist rolling in from the lake
My desire
Is always to be here
Oh Bes Medrash Govoha

Dated all of Brooklyn and the surrounding neighborhood
I would end this quest if only I could
Each night we learn like a heavenly choir
Oh the life and the times of the Bes Medrash Govoha

Bes Medrash Govoha, oh mist rolling in from the lake
My desire
Is always to be here
Oh Bes Medrash Govoha

Walks in the sunshine and tears in the rain
I date like a madman but single I remain
All the good girls want a doctor or lawyer
So I always end up back in the Bes Medrash Govoha

Bes Medrash Govoha, oh mist rolling in from the lake
My desire
Is always to be here
Oh Bes Medrash Govoha

*Vyesh gorsin: 12,000 dates but never been kissed

Psychology 101

Someone fairly choshuv wrote the following on Areivim:

I want to support R' Micha's observation that many of the "Orthodox" blogs are moshvei letzim, but I would go further. As a psychologist with a strong interest in social influence, I've been paying attention to changes in the positions of the bloggers themselves and some of the identifiable commenters. My impression (and it is so far only that) is that where the stance of the persons involved has undergone a noticeable change, it has almost always been in the direction of greater k'firah or at least borderline k'firah. I would conclude that authorship of these blogs may well carry serious spiritual risk (in line with the Rambam's famous guidelines in these matters).

First of all, I would dispute the contention that many Orthodox blogs are 'moshvei letzim'. What chutzpah! Just because we have a sense of humor doesn't make us letzim. Only one blog I can think of fits that description (and then only slightly) but I can't say which one because I promised to be nice to him.

Second, who has become a greater kofer? Is he talking about me? As this person reads my blog maybe so. Or maybe he is talking about MFM? Probably not talking about Gil though. And his conclusion is lame too. It's not the authorship of the blog that carries a risk. It's the evaluation of all arguments with an open mind. And you hardly need to be a psychologist to see that.

So much for psychologists, I always thought they were a bunch of quacks anyway. And having lived in Manhattan for several years, I should know.

Sophisticated Minerals

A popular quote that atheists like to use goes as follows:

I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do.

However this is clearly nonsense. The difference between Atheism and Theism, and likewise between Monotheism and Polytheism, is not simply one of numbers, No Gods vs. One God, or One God vs. Two Gods. The difference is clearly qualatative. The difference between One God and Multiple Gods is a qualatative difference, of whether there is harmony, unity, a single purpose to creation, or a bunch of Gods fighting. Even more significant is the difference between one God and No Gods. No Gods is not just one God less, it’s an entirely different worldview, where everything is simply physical cause and effect. I think this is obvious to everyone, atheists included.

I sometimes wonder if the atheists really take the full implications of their worldview to heart. I had been mulling a post on this for a while, though I saw that Jewish Atheist just beat me to it. I am talking about notions of identity, self and most importantly free will. I have spoken about this before but it’s worth repeating again.

If there are no Gods at all, and the physical world is all there is, then we are physical automata. We are no more than sophisticated vegetables. Heck, scratch that, we are simply sophisticated minerals. Seriously. There is no such thing as self, as free will, as consciousness. There cannot be. All these things are simply illusions. Our minds are physical systems which obey physical laws. That’s all there is to it.

Any illusions of free will are caused by the enormous number of stimuli that can prompt our actions, and the chaos that ensues. Nobody is really morally responsible for their actions, they had no ‘choice’. (Note that punishment for crimes would still make sense in this model, since the punishment stimuli would be useful in stopping people from committing crimes). However, without any Gods, the fact that one sophisticated mineral killed another one wouldn’t really matter much anyway. Except maybe to some other mineral entities who are under the illusion that they are the dead mineral’s ‘relatives’.

I doubt there are many atheists who truly believe that they don’t have free will, yet from a secular perspective the concept is really impossible. Kind of like God really.

Jewish Atheist ends one of his posts with the following line:

Theists who want to know God should take atheists seriously. We might turn out to be your best allies.

Rav Kook noted this long ago, that the atheists are useful in purging incorrect conceptions of God. For a long while I was concerned with trying to know something about God, but now I realize that this was not the Rambam’s mehalech. The Rambam is clear in the Moreh Nevuchim that we cannot know God, and it’s harmful to even try. (The Kabbalists differ on this). Even Moshe Rabbeinu could not know anything about God. The most we can do is learn about the way God interacts with the world, and the ‘middos’ He ‘displays’ (kaveyochol).

At the end of the day, I think a true Maimonidean conception of God and the weak atheist position are not that far apart, at least in terms of understanding God Himself.

As for the rest, well, I'm glad I'm more than just a sophisticated mineral.

Monday, February 13, 2006

If the Chareidim ruled the world…

Or at least Eretz Yisroel...

My last post sparked a tremendous discussion on all sorts of things. One line of debate centered on whether the lack of genocide and other evils of society have only been avoided by Orthodox Judaism because we were never in power in any substantial way. In other words, if the Chareidim ruled Israel, would it be a wonderful society, or something more akin to Iran?

The Hedyot wrote:

‘Public humiliation, ostracization, and unofficially sanctioned thuggery would definitely be common. It would be like a mafia. Not to mention the nepotism and cronyism that would be rampant. (All of which are common in the communities where the religious authority is the law.) And don’t forget the great treatment women would have, and of course anyone who doesn’t follow what the authorities (Gedolim) say i.e. Internet? Find another school for your kid…

True, compared to the Mullah’s they might seem like cute little furry bunnies, but you’d have to be blind not to see how bad it would be under them.’

Is this true? I used to wonder about this even when I was in Chareidi yeshivot. I also wonder what the Chareidim themselves really think. Do they really want to be in charge? Or would they too be concerned that the kannoim would get into positions of power, making life miserable for everybody, even them?

As a Chareidi takeover of Israel is unlikely, we can only speculate. I would like to think that a Chareidi run country would be pleasant. True, there may be some restrictions, but overall people would be sensible and things would be okay. Kind of like the way Lupolianski runs Jerusalem. They certainly wouldn’t start stoning Chilonim to death for chillul shabbos.

But I could be wrong.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Science of Judaism

I didn’t post much last week. To be honest, it was a skeptical week, and I don’t like posting when I’m skeptical, it might affect some reader’s emunah. Nothing was going right. Nothing was adding up. I was getting deeper and deeper into doubt. By Friday night I was sliding towards the bottom of the slippery slope.

‘Is it all over for the Godol?’ I wondered, as I chanted ‘Hashem LaMabul Yoshov’ with the rest of the RW MO chevrah who make it to shul Friday night. The LW MO chevrah of course stay home, and as for the Centrist Chevrah, I don’t know what Harry Maryles does.

But God had other plans for me.

It so happened that I had performed the mitzvah of Hachnasas Orchim that Shabbat. Thursday evening, my typically disorganized shul called me and asked if I could host a guest for Shabbat. As both the Godol and the Rebbetzin are hard working members of society, this was a difficult request, since on Fridays we tend to leave the house at 7am and not return home until an hour before Shabbat. On these kind of weeks, Shabbat Dinner consists of takeout, and Shabbat lunch is whatever happens to be in the fridge. (I usually make sure to eat well at the Kiddush).

However, we agreed to host the visitor, at least to sleep, if not to eat. Turns out this was no ordinary gentleman, but quite a choshuve dude, someone who has spent his life as a Rabbi, as a Professor at a well known academic institution, and more besides.

On the way to shul Shabbat Morning we got to talking about Hashkafah. Well, one thing led to another, and before you know it we are having a full fledged debate about Faith & Reason. I pulled out all the usual arguments – Breishis Mythology, issues in Shemos, lack of proofs of God etc., to show that Orthodox Judaism is based on faith (at least nowadays). He was trying to argue that Judaism was rational, like the Rambam.

Suddenly we had a revelation. Or maybe he did, but I had it at the same time too. Honest!

The basis of Judaism today is not reason, that’s true. You would have a hard time trying to logically prove God’s existence, or Torah MiSinai, or any of those things. However, neither is the basis of Orthodox Judaism simply blind faith. It’s something else.

Listen carefully Rabbosai, because this revelation is the answer. This revelation ties everything together. This revelation answers all our questions. This is it!

The basis of Orthodox Judaism is EXPERIENCE.

What do I mean? I mean the experience of keeping Halachah. The experience of keeping Shabbat. The experience of keeping Kashrut. The experience of learning Torah. The experience of God. We all do these things. We all feel it. We know it to be true on the basis of our experience. We see it works. We see the results. We see how a dedication to these ideals produces upstanding communities, families and individuals.

Some people will no doubt respond that there are plenty of fine individuals in other religious systems and communities too. And of course there are, to the extent that their religion mirrors the true ideals of Judaism. But you don’t need to look very far to see examples of religious extremism gone wrong.

Look at the extreme intolerant behavior of religious Muslims last week. They would kill and burn because of some cartoons. Of course we have our extremists too, but would they ever stoop so low? I don’t think so. Compare our Gedolim to their Mullahs. There’s no comparison!

But it’s more than that. Perhaps our society is an aberration? Perhaps in years past Judaism wasn’t such an effective religion. Well, let’s look back at the last 2,000 years of history. What has been our experience? Anyone who doesn’t see a marked difference between the behavior and accomplishments of the Jewish people and their religion compared to any other society is willfully ignoring the evidence.

Rabbosai, this is the Kuzari principle in action. The Kuzari principle not some logical, rational proof about the mesorah, as Gosselieb would have you believe. It’s a practical, experiential proof from our own history.

We know Torah is true because we experience it. And we know our fathers experienced it and we know their fathers experienced it too, all the way back to an event we call Sinai.

That’s the Kuzari proof.

But let’s go further. We talked recently about how the Rav was never troubled by the issues of Science, or the Documentary Hypothesis. We also talked about how Rav YY Weinberg said he didn’t need any proofs of religion because of his own experience. Now we can understand what they meant.

Rav YY Weinberg and the Rav were not fools. They were not Kiruv Clowns. They were well aware of the Science of their day. They knew Breishis could not be literal. They knew the Documentary Hypothesis had (some) merit. So how could they not be troubled? Were they lying? Pretending? Deceiving us?

No! The basis for their faith was their experience. They lived it. They lived Halacha and Torah. Maybe the Rav was okay with the DH. Maybe he was okay with Breishis being mythology. Maybe he was even okay with a Louis Jacobs or Halivni style peshat! Why? Because he knew the Torah to be true. He felt it, and he saw it work with his own eyes. And he knew his father and grandfather before him had seen it and felt it too.

At this point I’m sure the skeptics are gnashing their teeth. ‘What about the 9/111 bombers?’ they cry. ‘Didn’t they feel it too?’ Of course they did. But they blew up 3000 people. The proof that their feelings were all wrong is before our eyes. We feel it, and we see the results. POSITIVE results. Of course, not always, not in all people and not all the time. But over the course of history, in every era, in every society, in every corner of the globe, the Jewish community has excelled. Even in Israel today, under extreme pressures, the community is still head and shoulders above the rest.

We see it. We feel it. We know it. This is the basis for our religion.

And of course, experience is the foundation for Western Philosophy too. ‘I think therefore I am’. And how do we know we think? Because we experience it!

Rabbosai, when someone becomes skeptical, they typically start to observe less. They learn less. They attend shul less. And their skepticism deepens. Is it any wonder?! Of course not! They are cutting themselves off from the source of the experience. Chazal say ‘Borosi Yetzer Horoh, Borosi Torah Tavlin’. What did they mean by this? Not that the intellectual knowledge of Torah will save you, but the experience of learning. The experience of sweating over a Gemarah. The experience of the Divine. And this is what my Lakewood friend meant in his Friday Dvar Torah. The ikkar in Torah Study is not the knowledge. It’s the experience. The yegiah.

So, now we understand how the Rav, Rav Weinberg, Rav Kook and all the other great people of our age kept their faith. But it’s more than that. How could Rav Kook be okay with evolution? How could Rav Kook be okay with the Documentary Hypothesis? Rav Kook famously said that even if the Torah had been compiled over centuries it would still be the Torah because of the kedushah of Am Yisrael. Do you realize what Rav Kook is saying here?!!!

Rav Kook knew that Judaism was Divinely Inspired because he felt it. He wasn’t troubled by the DH, not simply because he dismissed it, but because even if it were true it would make no difference! His basis for being Orthodox was not some kiruv clown proof about the Divinity of Torah. His basis for Orthodoxy was his own experience.

I would claim the same for the Rav too. Why wasn’t he troubled by any of these issues? The Rav was heavily invested in Halachah. It was his whole life. He experienced the Divine nature of Halachah. He knew it to be true. It didn’t matter if the Halachah was given in entirety to Moshe on Mount Sinai itself, or alternatively was Divinely Inspired or Intuited by the Jewish people over many generations.

It’s clear from the Torah too that the ‘proof’ for Judaism was always in practical experience. When Moshe talks to the Bnei Yisrael he doesn’t give them philosophical proofs of God’s existence. He tells them they have seen it with their own eyes! Of course nowadays we can’t see it as directly. But we can experience it. And we also know that generations of our ancestors experienced it too. But even more importantly, we have seen the results. Anyone can claim a spiritual experience. But can they show the results?

Only Judaism can consistently show both the experience AND the results, in every society, in every geography, in every era.

Rabbosai, this is where the Gedolim go wrong. They think that our link to Judaism is so tenuous, so fragile, that any change or exposure to outside thought will be too damaging to bear. But they under estimate the power of experience! I always wondered how Conservative Rabbis remain frum. I mean, they don’t believe in Torah Min HaShamayim, so what motivates them? The answer is obvious – It’s the experience! And this is why the Conservative laiety are going off the derech faster than a rookie on a double black diamond. They don’t experience anything.

But in a sense, the Gedolim are also very, very right. They realize that the Mesorah is what has kept Am Yisrael going for 2000 years. As any good Scientist knows, if the experiment works, don’t fiddle with the parameters! Orthodox Judaism has been tried and tested for 2000 years and we know it works. We see the results. We don’t need intellectual proofs. We have the empirical evidence!

When a Scientist publishes some new findings, the key test is not the formulae or the proofs that he brings. The key test is whether his findings can be duplicated by others, in their own labs. If the results can’t be duplicated, his findings are rejected. No matter how clever his proofs, how well reasoned his arguments, if the results cannot be repeated, the Science must be a fraud.

How many other religions can repeat our results? We see the extremes that other religions have sunk to, both in the past and in our own day. The Gedolim know this. The Gedolim realize the power of our system.

But of course as the environmental factors change, we must change too. We must realize that the greatest ‘proof’ of our religion is our experience, and our ancestor’s experience. We experience God. We experience Halachah. And we experience Torah. Whether the DH is true or not, or whether Breishis really is ancient Jewish Mythology, is mostly irrelevant.

Quite possibly a lot of the dogma that has accumulated over the past 2000 or even 3000 years is somewhat false, or exaggerated. But why these exaggerations? Probably because people felt it so intensely that it was as if Moshe had heard God Himself speak! As the Rambam says, of course it didn’t happen that way, and it was more of a case of Divine Inspiration. But we can understand how the mistake was made. Should we be troubled by this? To some extent I suppose. But we shouldn’t let it destroy our faith, because at the end of the day, we know it works! Experience and empirical evidence trumps logical reasoning every time.

Imagine some flaw is found in our Scientist’s formula, does it invalidate his findings?! No, because his findings our repeatable. Clearly there is something more subtle occurring which needs to be investigated, but the basic truth of his findings are assured.

Now the skeptics will no doubt respond that their version of reality is more plausible. All of our experience, all of our history, all of our achievements can be explained through simple naturalistic phenomenon. They will claim that our morality is really inbuilt human behavior borne from millions of years of evolution, and is not the result of some Divine Inspiration. But let’s think about this. Perhaps we can perform an experiment? Perhaps there is some way we can test this out? Could we take a statistically significant number of people, remove God and religion from their lives, or perhaps change the religious laws and concepts, and observe the results?

If the skeptics are correct, then we should see no difference. If the skeptics are correct, then this Godless, secular group of people will display the same level of morality and excellence as the community of believers. If the skeptics are correct, then even taking Judaism but changing Halachah should make no difference. But how could we possibly perform such an experiment? How could we take thousands, if not millions of people and make them secular? Or make them worship a different religion?

Well, of course this ‘experiment’ has already been performed. And not just once with one group of people, in one location. But many times, with different societies in different geographies. And on a massive scale. Of course I am referring to Nazi Germany, Communist Russia and China, Reform and Conservative Judaism (Lehavdil) and more besides. The atrocities and massacres resulting from those Godless societies were beyond all comparison. And in our own day we see the brutality in African countries and the extremism in the Moslem world, with their incorrect religions and conceptions of God. And we likewise see the rise in divorce rate and the other ills of society when Halachah is discarded or diminished within the Jewish religion. We have the evidence, and it’s on our side.

This is the basis for our religion.

We perform the experiments. We see the results. It’s repeatable in every era, in every generation, in every geography. When the experience and the activities are changed too significantly, the results are different, and always worse. In every era, in every generation, in every geography.

Heck, it’s almost Scientific!

GH & Mattisyahu in the media

Godol Hador makes the front page! OK, so it’s not the New York Times, but it is the Jewish Press. Not that I read it myself (chas vesholom) but a couple people told me about it. Actually it was a front page article but apparently I appear on the back page.

The relevant passage is:

Joseph Schick recently contemplated Orthodox labeling on his blog (www.jschick.blogspot.com). In a post titled "Orthodox Judaism's Cultural Divide," Schick quoted former fellow blogger Godol Hador, who divided the frum world into four camps: Right Wing Haredi, Left Wing Haredi, Right Wing Modern Orthodox and Left Wing Modern Orthodox. (I noted there was no group labeled "Center.")

So there you have it folks. My claim to fame is not my incredible and thorough research into Breishis mythology. Not my exposure of the kiruv clowns. Not my in depth analysis of spirituality. Nor my debating of the skeptics. No, it’s the fact I divided the frum world into four camps. Oh well. Someday my gadlus will be recognized by the media.

In other media news, apparently Mattisyahu made it into FHM this month. Not that I read it myself (chas vesholom) but a couple of people told me about it. I would do some research and provide some quotes and a link but I don’t think that would be appropriate for a Godol. Unless the olam insists.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Global Productivity Takes a Hit!

GMail Chat. Yikes!

Lakewood Dvar Torah

[From a Lakewood Yungerman. Partially corrected for poor spelling, punctuation and grammar]

The chofetz chaim pointed out the medrash that says the mon tasted like whatever the person eating it wanted it to taste like. He then asked, suppose someone had no taste in mind, then what did it taste like ? He answered, 'oyb me tracht nit, a taa'm hot dos nit'- if you don't think, it has no taste.

The profundity of the statement lies in understanding what it was that klal Yisroel did in the midbar for forty years. We see in parshas maasei that there was very little marching involved, and the rest of the time they were busy with....what exactly ? They had no living to earn, no tourist things to see, no entertainment to speak of. What did they do for all that time ?

Hashem gave them the time to learn, and with nothing else to daydream about, they became known as the dor dei'ah - the generation that accepted the Torah. The mon taught them how to learn- you have to think to get anywhere. The effort of learning, more than anything else, is what helps the Torah penetrate. The Avos d'rabbi Noson writes further that Hashem buried certain influences in the Torah, and only with concentrated learning can we release those hashpo'os. This puts paid to the fallacy of tools and aids that make learning easier. One's efforts should never be sacrficed.

If one can gain more knowledge using the same level of effort, there is what to talk about, but more often they are used to gain more knowledge with less effort, which is precisely the opposite of the lesson of the mon. Indeed, anyone who doesn't think while learning finds it to be the most boring and futile of exercises. Oyb men tracht nit, a ta'am hot dos nit.

[GH: So more knowledge with less effort is a bad thing?! Hmmm. I guess the ultimate is to know nothing but kill yourself learning it. Apart from that, and the dubious mon reference, there is a point here. The more intensly you think about something, the better you understand it. Which only goes to prove that Gedolim's views on Science are probably not worth the paper they are written on. I like the bit about the hidden hashpaos in Torah, I could possibly believe that. On a non skeptical day. With a good dose of dopamine.]

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Nice Video Shame About The Message

I saw these on Jameel.

This video is too true. It brought a tear to my eye.
This video is funny. Drew is great! And Jack Black's barmitzvah parshah was Parshas Noach.
This video is funny too. It's not politically correct in any way. But it's funny.

And now for some social commentary.

Regarding Shloimy who keeps bugging his father: Who do you think pays for your tuition Shloime? And whose gonna pay for your bar-mitzvah? And who gave you the $37 in the first place? Yeah, thats right - you poor hardworking father! So quit bugging him and give him some peace and quiet. And be a good boy and go tell mommy the same thing.

Regarding Ethan's barmitzvah: Great idea Mom! Who cares if half the messages contained sexual innuendoes. Who cares if many of the stars don't even know what a Bar Mitzvah is. That wasn't the point. The point is that you worked your *** off getting all these stars to leave a message for your Ethan. True, you were away on business for most of Ethan's life so far, and will be for most of the rest of it too. Heck, he even had to fly from Toronto to LA all by himself and was puking the whole way. But this video shows you care. Well done!

Regarding 'It's in the Koran'. As Toby Katz is wont to say: 'Arabs are brutal insane murderers whose mothers have nachas when their kids grow up to be terrorists, and Jews and Arabs are very, very different."

Orthodoxy against itself

For a brief moment, Jewish unity was in the air. As the beat of the music grew increasingly louder the circle of wedding celebrants out on Long Island danced with ever more vigor, enveloping the groom and his family in a ring of energetic merriment.

Sweat pouring down their faces, the guests comprising this human dance chain looked like a microcosm of modern-day Orthodox Jewry. Businessmen sporting knitted kippot held onto yeshiva students wearing velvet yarmulkes, while men in large black fedoras moved in tandem to the music alongside those who had only recently embraced religious observance.

And so, for a few short hours at least, all the various ideological and political disputes plaguing the Orthodox community were set aside as those in attendance joined together with just one aim in mind: to celebrate the creation of yet another faithful Jewish household.

Oh please! The one aim in mind was to have a good time.

It was a nice moment, full of joy and delight, and it filled the newly-married couple with a great deal of satisfaction.

But the ease with which these disparate members of Orthodoxy came together in dance belied the growing fissures that threaten to divide them. In America, Israel and elsewhere, a troubling tone of stridency has taken hold, sharpening the rifts as never before.

Indeed, it was 50 years ago this month that something ordinary happened in the life of the Orthodox community which, when viewed through today's lens, now appears to have been nothing short of extraordinary.

IN FEBRUARY 1956, the modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) held a conference which included among its speakers Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Mordechai Gifter, two of the most renowned and prominent sages of the yeshiva world.

At first glance, this might appear to be a historical footnote. But the sad fact is that the divisions within Orthodoxy have grown so pronounced in the intervening five decades, that it almost seems fanciful to conceive of a similar event taking place in our own times.

I think this anlysis is wrong. I would say the divisions and the infighting are the norm, and the RCA convention is the exception.

As the RCA's own journal, Tradition, noted in a symposium on the state of Orthodoxy several years ago: "It is fair to say that today such invitations to luminaries of the Yeshiva world would neither be issued nor accepted."

That is a depressing thought, and it reflects a reality that needs to be addressed in an urgent and decisive manner. The fault lines within Orthodoxy today are extensive and growing, and it is time that resolute action be taken to stem this dangerous trend.

Centrists and right-wingers snipe at each other, while religious Zionists and haredim are often at odds, even as various hassidic groups find it difficult to get along.

' Even as chassidim'? They are the biggest fighters of all, always have been.

The underlying fact that these groups all share so much in the way of fundamental beliefs and practices, from Sabbath observance to Torah study to traditional family values, is either overlooked or swept aside, replaced all too often by mockery, scorn and downright contempt for those who do things ever so differently.

To be sure, there is nothing inherently new in the fact that different groups within Orthodoxy find themselves at loggerheads with one another. The birth of the Hassidic movement in the 18th century, and the opposition it engendered, is just one of many such examples. Other key events, such as the rise of political Zionism and the Enlightenment, also became flashpoints for competing views among Orthodox thinkers.

Prominent rabbis throughout the ages were also not immune to fierce opposition from their colleagues. In the 13th century, Dominican monks burned copies of Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed after the great philosophical work was denounced by a handful of French rabbis.

And in the middle of the 18th century the great Rabbi Yonatan Eibeschutz came under harsh criticism from Rabbi Yaakov Emden, who accused him of being a follower of the false messiah Shabbetai Zvi, provoking huge controversy among German Jewry.

And in the beggining of the 21st century the not so great Rabbi Nosson Slifkin came under harsh criticisms from Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, who accused him of being a follower of the false scientists, provoking huge controversey among Bloggerman Jewry.

BUT WHILE today's divisions within Orthodoxy may not be any more vehement or pronounced than those which preceded them, there is one very salient factor that makes it far more hazardous - the context in which it is taking place.

You just contradicted yourself. Is it getting worse or not? Make up your mind please.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, which devastated European Jewry, Orthodoxy has succeeded in reviving itself and its institutions, providing the Jewish people with a strong core that is committed to preserving tradition.

But even as assimilation, intermarriage and other threats hover perilously over the collective Jewish future, Orthodoxy has failed to close ranks, instead expending a great deal of precious energy and resources in internecine conflict and endless disputes.

One simple, yet concrete, example: In 1949, in the first Knesset, four religious parties ran together on a joint list called the United Religious Front, which comprised Mizrachi, HaPoel HaMizrachi, Agudat Israel and Poalei Agudat Israel.

And nowadays? Only visionaries or dreamers speak of establishing such a joint list.

Another case in point: Many modern Orthodox Jews feel their community is under assault from the Right, complaining about a "creeping haredization" that is taking place. Sociologist Samuel Heilman has described it as "an ongoing struggle for the heart of Orthodoxy in America; a battle, which has become more intense over the last 20 years, to define what sort of Orthodoxy will best ensure Jewish continuity."

An "ongoing struggle"? A "battle"? Have things gotten so bad that we need to borrow terms from the combat arena to describe internal developments within Orthodoxy?

Yes. Also don't forget that the Chareidim are under attack. Again!

Apparently so. Orthodoxy, it seems, is united only against itself. And this must not be allowed to continue.

There are several steps that could be taken to address this situation, all of which essentially boil down to learning to respect other paths within Torah Judaism.

OK, this is gonna be good....

Imagine, for example, if religious Zionist and haredi yeshivas held periodic exchange programs where young scholars from the two communities would together study Talmud, and only Talmud (no politics allowed), thereby learning to appreciate and value each other's way of life.

Imagine, for example, there's no heaven, above us only sky. Imagine all the people living life as one. Woohoo. Get real. Would never happen. Could never happen.

And what if the leaders of the different groupings organized joint public meetings, sending a clear message about the importance of maintaining unity and refraining from infighting and strife?

And what if pigs fly? And what if the President of Iran goes on vacation to Eilat? And what if Cross-Currents posts a non-offensive article?

At a time when so much of what Orthodox Jewry holds dear is coming under fire, from the Land of Israel to the role of religion in public life, there has got to be a way to bring the various elements together for the sake of the common good.

Beyond just the dance floor, that is.

Of course there is silly! There is absolutely another way to bring the various elements of Orthodoxy together, apart from the dance floor. There really is! I have seen it with my own eyes. It really, really works!

It's called the shmorg.

Okay, so why am I making fun of this article? Because while it certainly does raise the (well trodden issue) of divisions within Orthodoxy, the author doesn't actually have anything useful or constructive to say at all.

Let's analyze the real reasons for the divisions. Short tempered poor English readers (you know who you are) please note: I am presenting the typical viewpoints here. I am not neccessarily validating those views.

Chareidi Perspective
The Chareidim dislike/hate (depends who) the Modern Orthodox for the following reasons:

1. Natural intolerance for the "other", bred by the chareidi lifestyle.
2. Passionate commitment to Chareidi Judaism, and consequent dislike of all those who threaten it.
3. Insecurity about Chareidi Judaism, and consequent dislike of all those who threaten it.
4. Putting down the other makes them feel frummer, which is the whole goal in life.

Modern Orthodox Perspective
The Modern Orthodox dislike/hate (depends who) the Chareidim for the following reasons:

1. They are embarassing (dress, mannerisms, BO) and make MO look stupid to the goyim.
2. They make the MO feel guilty that they aren't religious enough.
3. They scare the MO since they may create a society where you have to be frum (especially in Israel and certain neighborhoods).
4. They annoy the MO with their 'holier than thou' attitude.

Chassidic Perspective
The Chassidim dislike/hate (depends who) everyone else for the following reasons:

1. They are a bunch of intolerant fanatics.
2. See 1.

So what's the solution? As with all hard questions, the Rav Mattisyahu answer seems the most appealing: Say Teiku and wait for Moshiach. Trouble is, with the divisions as they are, he ain't coming any time soon.

Of course you could look at it another way: If people didn't care, they wouldn't fight. The fact that everyone fights shows that they are all passionate about their version of Judaism. So at least we got that.

Why not be frum?

I saw the following comment on Daas Hedyot’s blog, from someone called dbs, an FFB (Formerly Frum Blogger). He was trying to explain to an outsider how the frum mindset works, and how frum people typically view those who are not frum, not yet frum, or not frum anymore (chas vesholom). He wrote:

1. Anyone who is truly honest with themselves and is seeking truth will see the beauty and truth of the Torah.

2. People who were never exposed to the Torah are understandably not Frum, since they just don’t know any better.

3. People who do know better [i.e. were frum] and become non-frum are simply making an immoral choice. This is understandable, since humans are prone to temptation. For example, everyone knows that it is wrong to steal, but some people steal. To ease their conscience, thieves will often rationalize what they know deep down to be wrong. So, you’re not becoming non-frum because of your beliefs, you are becoming non-from because you want to go and ‘fill in the blank’, and all these religious questions are just rationalizations.

4. Even if someone has doubts – which are certainly allowed – why should they not continue to be Frum? It is certainly a highly moral way of life. And, who knows, tomorrow you may again be a believer. Besides, it is unfair to cause such pain to your loved ones. Hence, not believing is one thing, but acting on it is selfish, immoral and shortsighted.

Yeah, that’s basically it.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Der Alter does Der Science!

Der Alter has brought to my attention some interesting research from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. I don’t know much about the university scene in South Africa, but I assume that this is a legitimate place and not a Fundamentalist Christian Fakeout.

As the document says: ‘The Umm Al Binni structure in the Mesopotamian marshlands of Southern Iraq, as a postulated late Holocene meteorite impact crater’ .

In other words, a strange crater found in southern Iraq could well be the impact crater of a meteorite. Meteorites can and do strike the earth with incredible destructive power. A meteorite hit the earth 65 million years ago and probably wiped out the dinosaurs, not directly due to the initial impact (except for those standing directly beneath), but because the resultant dust storms and climate changes wiped out their food supply. A meteor in Southern Iraq could have caused floods and similar devastation. As the article says:

The impact, with the energy of hundreds of Hiroshima-sized nuclear bombs, would have had a devastating effect on the regional environment. Since there are no accounts in the writings of Herodotus ...and Nearchus...or later historians, the event must have taken place in the Bronze Age at the dawn of recorded history (between ~3000 and ~1000 BC), and may have inspired the flood legends of Ziusudra and Utnapishtim...[GH: Hey what about Noah?] If the postulated impact site was under water, the water column would have absorbed some of the energy, resulting in a smaller crater than if the impact had been on dry land...Hence estimates of the bolide diameter (~150 m), based on the crater diameter (~3.4 km), are only a minimum, and the bolide could have been larger and more energetic. A wet impact would have generated huge tsunamis, which would have lashed all the port cities of Mesopot Shurrupak, etc, within a radius of a few hundred km.

Course, this doesn’t mean that Noach existed, it’s just a theory that would explain the Mesopotamian flood myths. But then myths mostly do have a real origin, as we have been saying all along. It seems that most (all?) of the major ancient myths have roots in volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, meteors and similar natural (but very unusual and frightening) occurrences.

Have the AOJS lost their minds?

[Hat tip: Shmaryah]

In the fall 2005 issue of the AOJS (Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists) magazine ‘Intercom’, an article by Rabbi Meyer Lubin entitled ‘Evolution is NOT a Theory’ rejects evolution as being no more than a hypothesis:

Evolution is not "only a theory"; it is a hypothesis, and not more. And according to the rules of logic, the opposite of any hypothesis is as valid as its original statement. The dictionary states that "a hy pothesis implies insufficiency of presently obtainable evidence and, therefore, a tentative explanation; theory implies a much greater range of evidence and greater likelihood of truth," (Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, 1949).

The rules of logic eh? I’m impressed. Of course we cannot ignore the rules of logic, that would be very bad indeed. And since it’s only a hypothesis, any opposite theory is just as valid? Amazing! So my theory that Zoboomafoo created all humanity from a cup of Tradition Noodle Soup (Beef & Vegetable flavor no less) is just as valid too! I think the AOJS needs to be informed of this development.

But wait, there’s more stupidity! Rabbi Lubin goes on:

There are other aspects newly discovered which are claimed by evolutionists to bear out their contention that humans evolved from sardines (both vertebrates) and mice (both mammals). Thus, we have observed many times pictures of "men" who first appear as short, stooped, completely hairy individuals, who in the next picture are less stooped, a little taller and a little less hairy, and finally, in the last picture, are erect, tall, shaven (through natural selection?). Sometimes only a bust is shown, first with vague features but progressively more defined. It must also be admitted that only bones were found--the skin, muscles and hair were put on by the finder's imagination, These pictures were duplicated in countless ads and other published media. It was a vital demonstration for evolution: man evolved from primates; they resembled chimpanzees and became humans through evolution.

This idea became ingrained in popular folklore. Our grea-tgrandfathers were Neanderthals. But already in 1997 it was clearly stated in "Popular Science" (no less!); Vol. 251 #6, December, 197, page 48, in an article entitled "Not Our Brother":

"A century-old debate about whether humans descended from Neanderthals may have been put to rest this year: the first-ever DNA extracted from neanderthal bone indicates that the hulking hominids did not interbreed with humans."

So modern man is not a child of these creatures; and if these were not our daddies, then primates were not our granddaddies. So therefore, no matter how many similarities there are between animals-these overwhelming differences could not have evolved from any other creature but from the Creator alone-as is stated in Genesis, that He created grasses (verse 12) according to its kind (wheat did not evolve from ordinary grass); fruit trees according to each kind; water creatures according to their kinds; birds according to each kind (verse 21); wild beasts and tame animals and crawling creatures each according to its kind (verse 24).
Rabbi Meyer Lubin

‘If these were not our daddies, then primates were not our granddaddies’. What the heck!? Is this the AOJS, or Frumteens?! The arguments in this article are simply amazing, not to mention the author’s vast knowledge of Science, and of course, the rules of logic. If modern humans were not descended from Neanderthals, then all evolution is bogus, and must have been Godidit. Wow.

It’s a funny world when the rabbinical head of the OU can come out accepting evolution, yet the AOJS publishes an article rejecting it.

Whatever happened to the AOJS? At this point they seem to be a bad joke. I actually met the Chairman of the AOJS, Rabbi Nachman Cohen, at an event a couple of years ago, he seemed normal. Has he gone over to the dark side?

I shall have to investigate.

Monday, February 06, 2006


I had the pleasure of attending a wedding recently in the Tri-State area. It was a well done affair, with a shmorg that could feed a small third world country, a 12 piece Neshamah band, leibedick dancing and even Rabbi Willig was there for most of it.

What was interesting was catching up with some old friends from days gone by. Some of the Rebbtzin’s friends had begun to wear sheitels, and some had stopped. The Rebbetzin however continues to expand her portfolio, I think I counted six the other day. One for each day of the week I guess (and a hat for Shabbos).

I also heard about an interesting shul in Teaneck, called Netivot Shalom. The Rabbi, Ron Price, is also the EVP of UTJ, which is R Halivni’s organization. The shul is Orthodox, yet is not part of the mainstream Teaneck Modern Orthodox world, for obvious reasons. Apparently they had mixed dancing at their annual dinner, and of course mixed dancing is ossur because it might lead to declaring that the Torah became corrupted and Ezra reconstituted it.

UTJ sounds interesting, and if I am not mistaken, some UTJ people are pretty active on Avodah. Is UTJ the Conservative Chareidi Movement of Teaneck? I shall investigate.

In the meantime, some advice – go easy on the shmorg!

Guide to the Guide

Reading and understanding the Moreh Nevuchim can be difficult. First of all, the English translation (Pines) is rather stilted. But even the best translation can’t hide the fact that the Rambam (purposely?) has some rather convoluted and disjointed arguments in there, and sometimes seems to contradict himself.

I just started reading Kenneth Seeskin’s Guide to the Perplexed which is basically the Cliff’s notes to the Moreh Nevuchim. It’s a good read, inexpensive and not too long. Highly recommended for those people who want a quick introduction to what the Rambam is trying to say.

I was a bit down on the Rambam after reading that Spinoza accused him of being a kiruv clown, but Seeskin has re-invigorated my faith, and I shall give him another go.

Also highly recommended (well, at least as highly recommended as a one post blog could possibly be) is David Guttman’s new blog Yediah. Hopefully his new blog won’t stop him commenting here. If it does, I’ll just have to wage war and disagree with everything he says.

Friday, February 03, 2006

How to deal with non secheldick Gedolim

Yesterday, I wrote that if I met a Rav who insisted that an ancient universe is Kefirah, I would smack him upside the head. Interestingly, this happened to Gil, as he writes:

I spoke about this with a big rosh yeshiva recently and he said simply: It is apikorsus to believe that the world is older than 6,000 years. Evolution? There wasn't time for evolution!

I pushed on evolution and he said, "You mean that we're descended from monkeys?" and made a face.

I then smacked him upside the head.

OK, so the last line was mine, but you never know, it could have happened. After all, absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. (Maybe I should put that on my tombstone har-de-har.)

But seriously, there is a problem here. What do you do with a well respected Rosh Yeshivah who is clueless on these topics, as many of them unfortunately are.

Do you:

a) Ridicule them (just kidding)
b) Ignore them
c) Try and gently educate them
d) Smack ‘em upside the head and see if you can knock some sense into them

I think we have to work on c).

Why can’t we just ignore them you ask?

I posed this question to the consulting firm of Koton & Godol LLP, and here is their response:

I think there’s too much investment there to just write them off. We have to leverage our assets and upgrade where feasible, rather than sunset the old legacy and bring in entirely new resources. That would be too costly.

Good Shabbos!

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Rambam's Conception of God

A commenter said the following today:

You guys who spend all this time blogging and commenting on blogs are pathetic. If you would spend just 10% of this time learning, you would see how the Ribono Shel Olam's Torah is 100% emes.

I ridiculed this at the time, but there is some truth to it. Every time I go back to learning (and I mean real learning, not reading a book by Richard Friedman) I get ‘frummer’. Why should this be? There is no rational explanation that I can think of. I suppose you could kvetch a peshat about how learning takes me back to my days in Yeshivah and then I feel frummer by association, but it’s a kvetch. A more natural (or rather supernatural) explanation would be as Chazal say ‘Borosy Yetzer Horoh, Borosy Torah Tavlin’, and as my Lakewood friends tell me, Kefirah is actually a taavoh, not unlike other taavos. Maybe there is some truth to that.

Tonight I had the pleasure of attending a three hour advanced ‘shiur’ on the Rambam. Pretty good stuff actually. The subject was how the Rambam understands God, with respect to the first 55 chapters of the Moreh Nevuchim.

According to the Rambam, we can never really understand God. In fact, we can’t really talk about God either. Most people are familiar with Rambam’s theory of negative attributes, i.e. you can say what God is not, but you cannot say what God is. However the Rambam doesn’t really push this viewpoint at the beginning of the Moreh. The Rambam really is proposing that though we can never understand the essence of God, we can understand God’s actions (see chapter 54), and through Gods actions we can understand how to behave morally and ethically.

The big proof text for all this is the famous story where Moshe asks God to show him His essence (Hareini nah es kevodech ) but instead God reveals the 13 middot to him. In other words, God is saying to Moshe – ‘You can never understand my essence, but you can learn from my middos i.e. the way I interact with the world’. This ties into a previous chapter where the Rambam says that going too far in thinking about God (i.e. trying to understand His essence) can be harmful, and that the reason Rabbi Akiva escaped from the Pardes (=philosophical speculation NOT kabalah according to the Rambam) is because he restrained himself from thinking too deeply about God’s essence.

The shloh has a piece where he compares the Rambams 13 ikkarim to the 13 middot, one by one, and shows how they tie together. This can be taken to be a further extension of the idea, that even within the Rambam’s whole system of philosophical and intellectual speculation about God, there is a very strong ethical component i.e. The only way in which we can understand God is through his actions i.e. his middos. The goal in life is to understand (and emulate God), which translates to understanding and emulating God’s middos.

And here is the kicker: If the 13 ikkarim are a reflection of the 13 middos, that might mean that they are more about getting to an understanding of the way God works, than about believing in certain dogma. A pretty interesting idea.

There was a lot more to the shiur than that but unfortunately I didn’t have a pen so I had to remember it by heart.

More Avodah Bittul Torah

The loonies on Avodah finally stopped debating evolution. But don’t get too excited, they have gone back to debating the mabul again. Sigh. Simchah Coffer, High Priest of the Torah & Science Lunatic Fringe, writes in response to another loony:

> 14: All the birds outside the Ark were also destroyed. If the Mabul was localized, why couldn't the birds just fly outside of the area?

Good kasha. I'm starting to be convinced but I can still ta'anah. You see, if civilization was truly concentrated in one geographical area, then there would probably be an epicentre to which the birds would gravitate. If, all of a sudden, the "floodgates" were unlocked, specifically to wipe out life, perhaps the birds didn't have time to escape. According to Chazal, the weather conditions during the mabul were radical (scalding water etc). It is not difficult to imagine a total wipe out of life although it was, perhaps, localized.

> 19: "The waters rose very much on ha-aretz and covered all the high
> mountains /asher tachas haShamayim./" All life beneath the all the
> heavens. This expression seems overkill (pardon the expression) if the
> life we are talking about was all in this one tiny region.

Who says it was tiny? Maybe life spread over thousands upon thousands
of square miles by the time the flood occurred.

Wow! First of all, Coffer seems to be arguing for a local flood. Coffer you Kofer! Secondly, Coffer provides a good laugh as usual. Bird would flock to human centers? Wot, there are no birds in the wild? Or perhaps the birds couldn’t escape because of the weather?!!! LOL. Maybe life spread out over thousands of miles?!! Duh. When are these people going to realize just how ludicrous they sound? I don’t mean to hurt anyone’s emunah but if you can’t just accept the following facts then you are a moron. Or maybe a mormon.

Fact 1: There was no global mabul within at least the last 10,000 years.
Fact 2: There may have been a small, localized flood in Mesopotamia, but its effect on global human and animal life would have been (in fact was) negligible.
Fact 3: The Torah and associated body of mesorah quite clearly describe a global flood which wipes out all human and animal life approximately 5,000 years ago.

Sure, the mabul may have been a story based on some really bad flood sometime in the distant past. In fact it probably was. And I suppose it’s possible there was a guy on a boat called Noach. Or Utnapishtim. Or Bob. But that’s not the story of Noach. That’s some guy on a boat surviving a flood. Happens all the time.

So who is dumber, the people insisting on a global flood, or the people insisting that the Torah is only talking about a local flood? You decide! They both sound pretty damn stupid to me. Course I don’t have a 'better' (in the sense of adhering to the mesorah) answer except to say it’s all allegorical mythology. I really have no doubt its mythology. Whether it’s allegorical is a different question. Maybe its Pedagogueical, errmm I mean Pedagogical, Pedagueogeueical, errr Mythology which sets out to teach you some important lessons. Oh wait, that’s just the definition of Mythology. Never mind.

All I can say to the loonies on Avodah is; Get real people! You are starting to sound like the Mormoms, and I am starting to think that we (or at least you) are no different. Book of Mormon anyone? What, there’s no evidence that it’s from God? Absence of evidence is NOT evidence of absence. It’s against the mesorah? But in my mesorah Zoboomafoo told me to read the Book of Mormon. You don’t believe me? How can you question the holy Zoboomafoo? You can’t know how a Holy Omnipotent Giant Furry Lemur would act, so how can you say he wouldn’t have faked up a false Torah? Jeez.

I think I’m done with all these hashkafah discussions. It’s quite obvious that no one invested in the Chareidi world is able or willing to acknowledge the truth when it strikes at the core of their ideology. Plus they argue like morons. Or maybe Mormons.

And that means they have no credibility at all. None. Next time some fundamentalist comes and bothers me about a global flood I’m gonna smack him upside the head and shout ‘Get away from me your freaking mormon’. Course it’s quite rare that people come up to me and start bothering me about global floods, so that probably won’t happen any time soon. Shame really.

Well at the very least, I have a new standard for credibility. Anytime I meet a Rav or famous Godol, I will ask him what he thinks about the mabul and scicence. If he says ‘Of course there was a global mabul you kofer!’, I will slap him across the face. If he says ‘It was a local flood’, I will punch him in the gut. And if he says ‘Teiku’, I will kick him in the goolies, cos I never much liked Rav Mattisyahu anyway.

Relax I’m only joking! Of course I would never kick anyone in the goolies. Seriously though, this is my new standard for credibility. Anyone who doesn’t pass the test gets nothing from me.

For those who are interested, the correct answer to the question is as follows:

’Of course the mabul is Mythology. As to why there is Mythology in the Torah I will have to get back to you on that one’.

Answering quietly and furtively is permitted; I do have some sympathy you know!

The problem is that I really like Orthodoxy, and I really want to believe in it and practice it. Unfortunately people like Coffer make it difficult. I guess ultimately this is why Modern Orthodoxy exists. Sure, they don’t have any good answers either, but at least they’re not in your face with all the stupidity. Hey, I think I have a new slogan for Eidah:

Modern Orthodoxy: We’re fundamentalist, but at least we’re not in your face about it.

or maybe:

Modern Orthodoxy: We're fundamentalist, but we keep quiet about it and hope you won't notice.

Holy Hyrax asks if I really care about Orthodoxy or do I think it’s a load of bull? I guess the answer is yes, but not completely. The sad thing is that most of the JBloggers agree with me, even the frum ones. So now what? The way I see it, I only have 3 choices:

1. Become an Atheist
2. Become a Chareidi
3. Remain Modern Orthodox and fake it (I mean the Modernity, not just the Orthodoxy)

1 and 2 are not very appealing. And neither is 3 for that matter. I guess it’s back to the Rebbetzin’s favorite solution to all problems of this nature:

4. Denial & delusion.

Three cheers for the Rebbetzin! I knew she'd come in useful eventually.

PS. Yes, this post is all over the place. Not wining the JIB has caused me to become unhinged. Or maybe it was reading Mar Gavriel that did it. Hard to tell really.

New: The JewBlog Awards!

Now that I realize just how bogus the JIBs are I figure it’s time to run my own competition. Don’t worry, if I win the JIB this post will mysteriously ‘disappear’, just like my Great Big Gedolim post, which was like soooo January 2004 (veHamayvin Yavin).

True to the spirit of the JIBs, my competition will feature an entirely corrupt and unethical voting system. In fact, in order to save time, I won’t bother with any voting at all, but will just pick the winners myself.

The first category in Godol Hador’s JewBlog awards is ‘Blog which contains the most incredible but mostly irrelevant detail’. This was an easy one, since there was a clear winner. I hereby present Mar Gavriel with the Godol award. Just picture an Oscar but with a long beard.

Wanna get a feel for why MG won? Just read this.

That entire post is a classic, there’s no point in me even providing any quotes, I wouldn’t know where to start! Unbelievable, but yet highly entertaining in a twisted kind of way. Kind of like The Truman Show.

Next up: Award for the blog which is most obsessed with the metzizah bapeh controversey.

JIB voting still open!

The JIB voting is still open. You can still vote for me. You MUST vote for me. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE vote for me. If you vote for me, I'll do anything you want (as long as its not pritzusdick.) Please! Come on, you know you want to vote for me. I'm begging you, vote for me!

Don't vote for Cross-Currents, they have plenty of votes already, plus they're crap. Don't vote for Hirhurim either, he has plenty of votes too, plus he's rigging the votes. IYaakov Menken told me personally that the entire student body of every college in the Tri-State area spent all of last night in their computer labs voting multiple times for Hirhurim. No fair! Meanwhile Gil told me that Menken has a team of Bes Yaakov girls who are going round Boro Park and Flatbush with wireless enabled laptops and IP spoofing software pursuading people on the street to vote Cross Currents. Do you really want these low life cheats to win? Chas vesholom!

Vote Godol Hador in best religious blog!
Vote Godol Hador in best overall blog!
VoteGodol Hador!

Even if you have already voted, you can still vote again every three days. Even if you already voted in the last three days, you can still borrow someone elses computer and vote again. Even if you already did that you can stil fake your IP address and vote again! You can get people who never read a blog in their lives to vote! You can get goyim to vote! You can pay people to vote! There are no ethics or morals or fair standards in this bul**** competition! You can vote early and vote often. Vote for me! Me! Me! Vote Godol Hador!

Please. I'm begging you. Vote for me! Let's show the organizers of this bull**** competition how truly stupid it is. A vote for me is a vote for common sense! Or stupidity! It's a vote for whatever you want it to be a vote for! I guarantee it.

Just vote for me already. Stop reading this post and go vote for me already. Go on. NOW. Just go. You already did it? So go do it again. If you can't figure out how to do the fake IP thing just go ask Hirhurim or Cross-Currents, I'm sure they can help you. I won't tell you again. Go vote for me this minute or else! Now. Please. Please? Pretty Please?

OK, look. I'm not going to beg. I'm just asking you as a friend. Please. As a personal favor to me. You don't have to tell anyone about it. Just do it for me. Please. You know it will make you feel good. In fact, don't do it for me. Do it for you! Go on. Please. PLEASE! OK, I'm back to begging again. See what you made me do? I literally have to beg you to vote for me! After all I've done for you! PLEASE! Don't make me humiliate myself any further. Just do the right thing and vote for me.


Avak Kefirah on Hirhurim!

Hirhurim posts the following:

Did Rashi's daughter wear tefillin? According to Prof. Aryeh Frimer, for 35 years he has been searching for evidence to support that rumor and has yet to find it.

Unbelievable! This post is in appallingly bad taste. R Gil, you may as well write the following:

Did the Bnei Yisrael really leave Egypt? According to the majority of the world's historians and archeologists, for 150 years they have been searching for evidence to support that story and have yet to find it.

As all good Torah True Jews know, absence of evidence is NOT the same as evidence of absence. Shame on you!

Faith For Sale

Mis-nagid tells me about an atheist who is selling his faith on ebay (I assume it's not him). For each $10 bid, the atheist will promise to go to the church of your choice, and keep an open mind. Currently the bids are up to $280!

This gives me an idea. Maybe you can persuade me to adopt your faith? Whether its skepticism, Lubavitch or Chareidishkite, I have an open mind. For every extra $10 that your promise to give to tzedakah (that you wouldn’t have given besides for this), I will promise to read the sefer/book of your choosing, and honestly try to see the author's point of view. Baba Kama, The Evolution of Religion by Pascal Boyer, The Tanya – it’s up to you. I’ll even read Cross-Currents if you pay for it!

Let the bidding begin.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

DovBear & Godol's Guide to 'Religious' Blogs

Seems that JIB's definition of a 'religious' blog is a bit suspect. Here is our guide to the so-called 'religious' blogs:

Halacha and Hashkafa and YU Politics: Hirhurim
Hashkafa : Godol Hador, Mavin Yavin, On the Main Line, DovBear(a little)
Junk (Pseudo) 'Hashkafa' twisted to support a political agenda: Cross Currents
Stories and Parables : Simple Jew
Superstitious nonsence : Lazer Beams
Stuff Jewish chicks like to talk about : OrthoMom
Stuff Jewish chicks like to talk about : RenReb

Jewish Internet Bull**** Awards

Looks like Hirhurim and Cross Currents are going head to head for best religion blog in the JIB awards. This is quite interesting, as I think it mirrors the struggle in the real world for the soul of Orthodox Judaism.

Which is the real Orthodoxy? Thoughtful application of Halachah, willingness to entertain multiple view points (even non Orthodox ones), a sense of integrity and honesty; Or, shameless political hacking of a mostly non spiritual agenda, concerned more with outward appearances than inner spirituality?

If you hold of the latter, by all means vote for Cross-Currents. If the former, vote for me! (Or at least Hirhurim). Do the Cross-Currents folks really think they are a religion blog?

Harav HaGadol HaGaon Micha Berger had this to say:

Actually, I'm wondering in what sense Cross Currents is a religion blog. They seem to be predominantly about politics.

This is the $64,000 question. Is Judaism really about religion, or just politics? Were the original Bible Blogger(s) trying to make a religious statement, or a political statement? If Cross Currents wins, I guess we will have our answer.

Is there life after PowerPoint?

After the onset of skepticism and corporate reorganization, PowerPoint is all I had left. I may not be on track to be the CEO, but at least I am the recognized PowerPoint guru here. Now I see Edward Tufte’s website. Woe! Woe is me. All of my beliefs are being shattered. I could live with Breishis being Myth/Moshol, but losing PowerPoint is the final straw on my descent into nihilism. For anyone interested in further detail on this matter, I am working on a 296 slide deck full of chartjunk. Should be finished by this afternoon, at which point it will go into the infinite review cycle with my boss, my bosses boss and my bosses bosses boss.