Friday, October 31, 2014

My Epistemology: Part 1

I think that I have a fairly well-developed epistemology, but a recent conversation made me realize that it might be prudent to explore and formalize how I (ideally) determine what is true and what the implications of those methods might be.

First I need to define my terms.

Something is "true" if it conforms to the facts. Truths are usually objective and could be determined by anyone with enough information. People don't get to have their own truths about anything except highly subjective things, like, say, what the best flavor of ice cream is.

A "belief" is something that is held to be true, to a greater or lesser degree. It is not necessarily something that one is absolutely sure about, as there is virtually nothing that we can be sure of with complete certainty. It is also not to be confused with faith, which is act or state of holding a belief without proof.


Next up: a method for determining what is true.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Girls' Costumes

Which is worse?
















A culture that produces highly sexualized firefighter and police officer costumes for little girls ...



or a culture that so sexualizes little girls that the girls' faces have to be blurred out, even when they are modestly dressed, so that grown men don't have "bad thoughts?"

Monday, October 27, 2014

Rationalist Mystics

There are several ways of viewing what halacha is. I think the most common conception is that halacha is a set of rules that Hashem gave us in order to guide us in living the best possible life. In this view, Hashem is personally pleased or displeased by our actions, intentions matter, and we are rewarded and punished accordingly. Rabbinic emendations to halacha are attempts to safeguard the rules and to improve our likelihood of pleasing Hashem and living a good life.

 A Maimonadean friend of mine sees halacha as a set of laws given to us by Hashem which we are then free to build on using a duly appointed system of courts. In this view, halacha is a system for keeping society together, as is any legal system, and for carrying out the Divine purpose. It is superior to other legal systems because its foundation is divine,  but sin is not a matter of displeasing God (though He may be displeased when we break halacha) but a matter of jurisprudence.  

A third way of seeing halacha is as a reflection of the workings of a hidden world, a guide to the physics of the metaphysical. So we refrain from, say,  eating non-kosher foods not because (or not solely because) eating treif displeases God or because it's illegal, but because non-kosher foods are poisonous to our souls. In this view, intentions don't matter. Poison will kill you whether you intended to ingest it or not. Non-kosher food  will damage your soul whether you knew it was treif or not.

Where this view runs into problems is the fact that most of halacha as it's now practiced is midirabanan, and different communities have different , equally legitimate halachic practices. Some things are easy to justify as enhancing a mitzvah or safeguarding us from sin, but others are disagreements about what the halacha itself prescribes. If halacha reflects metaphysical reality, then it MUST BE that differing halachos/minhagim in different places reflect different local metaphysical realities. It further follows that local poskim, through issuing their rulings, are actively changing their local metaphysical realities. Given that halacha often describes  physical phenomena or depends on how they work, it's only a small leap to then say that local pesak changes physical as well as metaphysical reality.


So it turns out that the position that pesak changes metaphysical and possibly even physical reality, which seems as hardcore a mystical position as there can be, is arrived at through rationalist logic.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Pious Perverts

My BMG-going brother-in-law is getting married this summer to a girl from Lakewood, in a Lakewood wedding hall. We found Easter dresses – I mean, wedding gowns – for my daughters for a great price, but were told they would have to wear shirts under the (sleeveless) dresses to cover their arms. My daughters are seven and four. Worse, this dictate was passed to us by my wife’s sister, who was similarly surprised and dismayed when her mother told her that her one-year-old had to have her arms covered. My mother-in-law said it was implied to her that everyone must conform to Lakewood standards of tznius.

Tznius is touted as virtuous, and the tznius frum woman supposedly is not identified solely with her body, in sharp contrast with the debauchery of the general culture, where women are sexualized and objectified. In truth, tznius (at least in its current incarnation) creates a culture where women are highly sexualized, so much so that they are basically walking sex objects. Granted, they’re valued on how well they keep their sexuality from distracting men, rather than on how much they flaunt it, but that just makes it worse. It lets the society pretend that it’s exceptionally virtuous, that it’s not sexualizing women, while in fact it’s making women’s sexuality their most salient feature.  The culture around an underwear model is not claiming piousness,   while the pious tznius culture sexualizes women so much that even an elbow is pornographic.

Nor is it just a matter of social norms, of what is and isn’t considered acceptable to show in public. Women are told that their greatest mitzvah is tznius, just as men’s greatest mitzvah is learning. And why is tznius so important? Not as an end in itself, but so that men don’t chas v’shalom notice anything sexy, because apparently a man noticing a woman and thinking, “Hey, she’s pretty!” is a horrible aveirah. To say nothing of actual sexual thoughts. For a woman, it’s not talmud torah k’neged kulam, but hiding-that-you’re-at-all-attractive k’neged kulam.

Which brings me back to my daughters and niece and their sleeveless dresses.  If the reason for tznius is lifnie iver, the concern that a non-tznius woman will cause a man to have sinful thoughts, then it follows that anything banned for tznius reasons must be at least somewhat arousing. And because we don’t pasken halachos based on far-fetched cases, it must be something that is arousing to most people, and not just one or two people with strange predilections. It further follows that if little girls are made to cover their arms for tznius reasons, then it must be that the average person in the society finds little girls’ arms sexual. [For the record, I doubt that anyone in the yeshivish world has thought through the logical implications of tznius for one-year-olds, but still…].


So not only are adult women sex objects whose sexuality must be minimized to prevent sin, but even little girls are sex objects! And they have the chutzpah to call secular society sick!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Producing Prayer’s Perceptions

From Cults In Our Midst, by Dr. Margaret Singer, among persuasion techniques used by cults are:

HYPERVENTILATION
Continuous overbreathing causes a drop in the carbon dioxide level in the bloodstream, producing respiratory alkalosis. In its milder stages it produces dizziness or light-headedness. More prolonged overbreathing can cause panic, muscle cramps, and convulsions. Cults often have people do continuous loud shouting, chanting or singing to produce this state, which they reframe as having a spiritual experience
REPETITIVE MOTION
Constant swaying motions, clapping or almost any repeated motion helps to alter a person's general state of awareness. Dizziess can be produced by simple spinning or spin dancing, prolonged swaying and dancing. Group leaders relabel the effects of these motions as ecstasy or new levels of awareness.

As a teenager I would often get dizzy during Shacharis. And the shukeling in some shuls, to borrow an image from Mark Twain, could power a city if only someone would find a way to attach the bobbing upper bodies to a generator.


The above techniques are not used in the frum world for blatant manipulation in the way they’re used by cults, but it seems likely these behaviors – prolonged chanting causing changed breathing patterns and repetitive motion – evolved and became a standard part of davening for the same reasons that cults urge them on their members. They are physiological means to produce real experiences which can then be pointed to as experiential proof of the validity of davening in particular and Judaism in general.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The General, the Rabbi, and the Roman

I just came across something interesting.

In his “War of the Jews,” Josephus describes how he attempted to defend the town of Jotapata. Convinced that the town would fall to the Romans, he suggested that he should sneak out and raise an army to lift the siege, but the townspeople refused to let him go. When the town fell, Josephus was captured. When he met Vespasian, the general in command of the Romans, he predicted that Vespasian would become Emperor. When this happened two years later, Josephus was released and granted full Roman citizenship, land, and new wife.

This reminded me of something I had learned in school.

The gemara (Gittin 56a-b) tells the story of how when Yerushalayim was besieged by the Romans, R’ Yochanan ben Zakai suggested surrendering. He was overruled, and so had his students sneak him out in a coffin. Once outside the city walls he went to Vespasian’s tent, where he predicted that the general would become Emperor. When this happened, R’ Yochanan was granted favors by the new Emperor, including the right to establish a yeshiva in Yavneh and transfer the Sanhedrin there.

 The two stories are strikingly similar. It’s hard to swallow either as historically accurate, but Josephus’s story was written by the man himself, only decades after the event. The gemara was written centuries later. Which seems more likely:
  1.  Nearly identical stories happened to Josephus and to R’ Yochanan ben Zakkia – and in both cases Vespasian was surprised by the prediction, apparently having forgotten whichever came first.
  2.  Josephus attributed R’ Yochanan ben Zakkei’s story to himself.
  3. Josephus’s story, having been written down, was in circulation in the Roman world, and particularly in the Jewish Roman world. Passed around orally by the mostly illiterate public, at some point, the story was misattributed to R’ Yochanan ben Zakkai, and this version was canonized by the gemara.

I’m voting for #3.

Everyone’s A Slave…

“You’re either a slave to Hashem or you’re a slave to your taivos.” How many times have we heard that? It's one of the standard kiruv sound bites, and is a particularly grating one. It sounds profound, is meant to suggest that no one can be free, and that, as long as we’re all slaves, being a slave to God is better than being a slave to our desires. I think it’s time to put this banal assertion to rest.

Before I get to deconstructing the logic of the claim, here’s something funny. I wanted to find out where the idea comes from, so I typed “a slave to god or a slave to your desires” into Google. The first result is a passage from the New Testament, Romans 6:16-18:

Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.”

I went through a few pages of results and tried variations of the search phrase, and it really seems that this idea comes from the New Testament. How funny that Rebbonim and Roshei Yeshiva are giving mussar shmusen based on something written by the apostle Paul!

The claim itself is a false dichotomy. It suggests that there are only two choices. Either one does as Hashem commands, or one is a slave to his “taivos,”  which literally mean “desires” but in this context means “base desires:” pleasure, money, power, etc. As someone recently pointed out, even if it’s true that everyone is a slave to something, why would it have to be base desires? Someone could be a slave to his compassion, or his sense of justice, to caring for his family or to improving his community.

Hidden in the claim is another sound bite, the often-heard canard that without God, there is no morality, so of course if one doesn't enslave himself to God he will be overwhelmed by his base desires.  It’s not true that without God there’s no morality, but, more importantly, the notion that if someone isn't a slave to God he’ll be only concerned with fulfilling his base desires is demonstrably false. It’s just not true that non-religious people’s lives are non-stop orgies.

The corollary is also not true. Religious people are not free of their desires by virtue of being religious. There are religious people who are overwhelmed by their base drives. The idea is that you must be a slave to something; being a slave to your base desires is bad; so be a slave to God, which will prevent you from being enslaved by your desires. Yet one can be a slave to God AND a slave to his desires, so what is gained by being a slave to God?

In addition to being a false dichotomy, it also uses an equivocation fallacy. Being a slave to an intelligent Being and being a “slave” to your desires is not the same thing. Webster defines “slave” as:

1 : a person held in servitude as the chattel of another
2 : one that is completely subservient to a dominating influence

Neither is a  good situation to be in, but the first one is worse. Someone who is a slave to his desires may have serious problems, may even destroy his life, but he can, in theory, overcome his difficulties and regain control. Someone who is chattel is no longer someone in control of his own fate. He is property, just a thing to be used as his master sees fit.


I’m thinking about going through all the kiruv sound bites like this, and then create an index. Here's a short list:


  • You’re either a slave to Hashem or you’re a slave to your taivos.
  • Without Hashem, everything is hefker (there’s no morality without God).
  • There are no questions, only answers.
  • Our grandparents died for their beliefs.

And maybe some of the proofs?:


  • There’s an unbroken mesorah.
  • Our sifrie Torah are exactly the same as ones that are hundreds of years old / the same as what was handed to Moshe on Har Sinia,
  • The Kuzari.
  • The four-animal proof.

Any more?