Monday, June 27, 2016

Questions, not Excuses

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Blinded by Belief

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 20, 2016

Odds and Ends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 30, 2016

God Vanishes in a Puff of Logic

Renee Descartes, after proving the existence of God to his satisfaction, uses God to get himself out of the radically skeptical corner he painted himself into with his cogito. He reasons that God is perfect, and a perfect Being would not deceive him, as deception is a form of imperfection. Therefore he can deduce that the world he experiences is real and not a product of God deceiving his senses.

I think that the same line of reasoning can be used to prove that God does not exist:

1. God is perfect.
2. Deception is a form of imperfection, and a perfect Being would not deceive us.
3. Therefore a perfect being would not deceive us by creating us in such a way that we would perceive things that are not true.
3a. AND a perfect Being would not lie to us.
4. What we perceive often contradicts what God told us.
C. God doesn't exist. QED

I really enjoy this argument. There is something satisfying about turning the Ontological Argument on its head and defining God out of existence. And it reminds me of the argument from Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy that the Babel Fish is so obviously a proof for God's existence that it proves He doesn't exist. Unfortunately, I don't think the argument is sound.

Premise one may not be true, and the argument only disproves the existence of a perfect God. Premise two may not be true, and perfection may include the ability to do all things, including to deceive. Premise five may not be true, and is in fact the subject of a lot of apologetics that attempt to reconcile religion and science. I'm afraid that the whole thing feels like sophistry. Still fun though.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Plato's Midrash

I was listening to lecture about Aristophanes when the lecturer brought up Aristophanes' role in Plato's Symposium. The philosophers who had gathered for the event were discussing love. Aristophanes, fed up with their over-intellectualizing, makes a ridiculously over-the-top speech about how when the gods had first created people, there hadn't been two genders, as there are now. The first people were round, androgynous creatures and were essentially two people stuck together back-to-back. They were enormous, and rolled around the world, looking to fight with the gods. The gods separated each creature into two people, but allowed the halves to find each other again. Today people still look for their missing half, and love is gift from the gods.

This story struck me as familiar. There's a midrash that describes Adam Harishon in exactly the same way:

Rabbi Samuel b. Nahman said: At the time that the Holy One, Blessed Be He created Man, He created him as an Androgynos.Resh Lakish said that at the time that [Adam] was created, he was made with two faces, and [God] sliced him and gave him two backs, a female one and a male one, as it saysAnd He took from his sides,[2] as it says, [3]R. Berachya and R. Chalbo and R. Samuel b. Nahman said: At the time that the Holy One, Blessed be He created man, He created him from one end of the earth until the other, filling the whole world. He created [Man] from the east to the west. From where do we learn [that man was created from the east to the west]? As it says,  of the earth to the other]? As it says [4]And from where do we learn that before.[5] And from where [do we learn that man was created from one end Adam filled the space of the whole earth? As it says, [6]

Not only does the midrash describe a  two-sided giant proto-human, it even uses the same Greek word as Aristophanes, "androgynous," to describe it.

There are so many interesting things about this.
  • When I learned this midrash, no one mentioned Aristophanes. Like me, most frum people learn the midrash and have no idea that they are reading something that originated in Greek philosophy.  
  • It's yet another example that shows that the Jewish communities of the past were influenced by the cultures around them, so much so that elements of those cultures made it into what many people consider the Divinely-inspired, transcendentally meaningful explanations of Tanach.
  • It proves that extant ideas have been read back into tanach. Plato's Symposium predates this midrash by six hundred years, and  two-faced Adam is brought up by Resh Lakish, who had been immersed in Roman culture. There's little doubt that the idea came from the Symposium. Yet they manage to find proof-texts to hang the idea on.
  • Perhaps most interesting of all, the amoraim quoted in the midrash didn't get the joke! Aristophanes was being deliberately ridiculous to make a point, and these amoraim took him so seriously that 1700 years later, little kids in yeshiva learning parshas Bereishis learn that Adam was originally an androgynous two-sided creature.

It's also notable that in Aristophanes' version, there are three types of creatures, double-sided male, double-sided female, and male-female. After separation, each was motivated by love to seek it's other half, and Aristophanes says that this is all good, love is a gift from the gods, and we should leave it at that. The midrash conspicuously leaves out the part about double-sided males and females. Maybe because it doesn't fit with the narrative in Bereishis about Adam and Chava, maybe because of its positive attitude towards homosexuality, or both. 

Monday, May 2, 2016

Metaphysical Amiratzim

I recently heard an interview with James Flynn, the namesake and discoverer of the Flynn Effect. While doing research on intelligence, Flynn noticed that IQ tests have to be renormed every few years. Tables for scoring IQ tests are derived by administering the test to thousands of subjects. For convenience (it makes the math easier), the average result is given a score of 100. IQ tests measure people's performance not against some objective standard of intelligence, but against the average performance of people in their cohort, the people in their age group in their era. The tests have to be periodically renormed because average scores keep drifting upwards.

What this means is that if someone were tested today and scored with the tables used in the '40s, he would score as a genius! It's nice to think that we're all getting smarter, but reversing that experiment exposes an absurdity. If we were to take a current IQ test back in time and test someone from our grandparents' generation as a young man or woman, they would score as profoundly retarded. Obviously, the generation that created the first computers and jets was not made up of people who were not intelligent enough to  care for themselves.

So what was happening here? Flynn found that in some areas that IQ tests measured, like math skills and vocabulary, there was little to no change in the scores between cohorts. What changed was people's performance on sections that required abstract thinking. People kept getting better at it. The rising scores didn't reflect a change in people's intelligence, it reflected the diffusion through our culture of a particular way of thinking. People in the past tended to think concretely, about things that effected them directly. Not because they were intellectually incapable of thinking abstractly, but because they had no reason to, and were unlikely to ever encounter abstract modes of thinking. They didn't have the intellectual tools for it.

I had heard all of this before. What caught my attention in the interview was when Flynn pointed out that there had always been a small minority of people throughout history who could think abstractly, and listed talmudists among his examples. Could this explain the gemara's contempt for the am haaretz? Imagine yourself as an amora, intelligent, educated, and so comfortable with thinking in abstractions that you don't even realize that's what you're doing. You interact with a farmer who is illiterate, ignorant, and, it seems to you, unable to even think. Sure, he can design and build buildings and farming equipment, come up with clever ways to increase his crop yields and keep away pests, and other practical, hands-on things. But ask him to apply logic to a pair of pesukim to see how they are similar and what we can learn about what is discussed in one from what is discussed in the other, and he's completely lost. It's not just that he can't do it, he doesn't even understand what it is you want him to do.  Of course you think he's an idiot.

The farmer isn't an idiot. He's just lacking a particular set of tools. It's like asking a guy who's never seen a screwdriver to assemble a piece of furniture, and concluding he's mechanically inept because he thinks the pointy things with ridges are badly-made nails. He won't be able to put the thing together. He won't even understand what it is you want him to do. You hit nails, you don't turn them. Everyone knows that! But show him what a screwdriver is, explain to him how screws work, and give him a chance to practice, and he could end up working for IKEA.

This all came to mind over Yom Tov when I saw this sign at a keilim mikvah in Brooklyn.

My initial reaction was to ridicule whoever had written the sign. Tevilas Keilim is not a metaphysical or mystical concept? You don't get much more metaphysical and mystical than dunking clean utensils in dirty magic sky-water to wash off the taint of possible involvement in worship of other gods. Here, in red and white, was proof that the frum community was made up of theological morons, philosophical amiratzim who don't recognize a metaphysical ritual when it stares them in the face.

Then it occurred to me that perhaps they weren't stupid. They just didn't have the intellectual tools to see their own religion as metaphysics. And why should they? The wider questions of theology and metaphysics, and the similarities and mechanics of different religions and mythos didn't affect their day-to-day lives. To them, "metaphysical" probably means something like, "Kabalistic."  The sign is probably meant to convey that toiveling keilim is halacha and not a kabbalistic minhag. These same people, complacent in their ignorance of theological terms and lacking the ability to recognize a mystical ritual meant to affect metaphysical impurity might, if given the tools, become adept at thinking about religion.

Perhaps that is another reason to put together a book explaining why people might conclude Orthodox Judaism isn't true. To provide the tools and motivation to even the devoutly religious members of Orthodox society to develop an appreciation of a different way of thinking about their religion. One that understands that "metaphysical"  can include not only those things they consider esoteric but also things that they take for granted, like tummah, avodah zara, and God.

That's almost certainly a grandiose overstatement of the effect of anything I might write, but I'll take motivation where I can get it.

On a related note, I have been working on an outline for the book I proposed a few months ago. It's slow, but so far I have a sixteen page outline, and it continues to grow. When I finish the outline I'll clean it up and post the basic format (Chapters, headings, subheadings, specific topics) for suggestions.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Better Angels of Our Nature

I recently finished reading "The Better Angels of Our Nature" by Steven Pinker, and I highly recommend it. It's just short of 700 pages, so it took me a while to get through, but it was never boring and was packed full of fascinating insights into why people are violent - and why they are less violent now than in the past.

The thesis of the book is that violence has declined steadily over the history of civilizations. Despite the widespread belief that we are living in exceptionally violent times, we are in fact living in exceptionally peaceful times. Wars today kill more people (in whole numbers) than did wars in the past, but there are far more people and far fewer wars than there used to be. As a percentage of the population killed, even the cataclysms of the 20th century, the world wars, barely make the list of the greatest episodes of violence in history. The author documents how violence has declined across the board, from warfare to the justice system (we no longer have public executions or break people's arms and legs, thread them through a wagon wheel, and leave them to die) to the way we discipline our children, to our recognition of the rights of other people.

When people decry the abysmal morality of our society, they are usually talking about sex. (They're completely wrong about that, but that's a different post.) Pinker has convincingly shown that in terms of violence and recognizing the rights of others not to be harmed, there has never been a more moral time.

If I were motivated, I could have written a dozen posts inspired by this book. Instead, I'll just write about a couple of things I bookmarked.

The first speaks to the often-heard idea that morality comes from religion. For most of history, it was the norm for heretics and apostates to be tortured and killed. This wasn't cruelty for its own sake,  but was the logical result of the belief that heretics would suffer an eternity in Hell, and could be saved from this fate by confessing their sins and recanting their heresy. As terrible as torture was, it was better to make the heretic suffer for a few days or weeks now and so motivate him to repent than it was for him to suffer even worse torment for all of eternity. As for someone who spread heresy, he had to die to prevent him from causing others to be damned. Pinker makes the point that this logic still holds today, yet people in the West are horrified at the idea of torturing or killing heretics. While there is some cross influence between religious and moral beliefs, it is for the most part their morals that inform their religious beliefs, not the other way around.

The second is a group of studies about violent offenders. It was found that these people's brains are different from typical people. The area of the brain that controls impulses and modulates behavior is smaller in criminally violent people than it is in typical people. If a typical person was involved in an accident that damaged his brain so that he was no longer able to control his impulses, would we hold him morally responsible for his violent actions? I don't think we would. Then what about people whose brains naturally develop that way? How can we hold them morally responsible? And yet, the American justice system is  structured to be punitive rather than rehabilitative.

Similarly, it was found that people's capacity for self-control could be boosted by feeding them sugar. The pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for higher functions like self control, burns a lot of energy. Controlling yourself literally requires energy, and the more you do it, the less energy you have available and the more difficult it becomes. Add energy, and you're ability to control yourself shoots up. In other words, you're best prepared to resist eating a chocolate bar after you've eaten it. As I've said many times before, if there is a God, He's a practical joker with a nasty sense of humor.

The last piece I'll mention is a study that, "looked at twenty-five civilizations in Asia and Europe and found that the ones that were stratified into hereditary classes favored myth, legend, and hagiography and discouraged history, social science, natural science, [and] biography." Does that sound familiar?  The study's author suggests that this is because it is not in the interest of those in the controlling classes to have scholars uncover the truth about the past (or present) and cast doubt on their descent from heroes and gods. Or in the case of the frum world, pious holy men and superhumanly adept scholars.