Sunday, February 22, 2015

Electricity on Shabbos

I have a theory about why electricity is assur on Shabbos, despite its use not violating any melachos. I'm not a halchic expert by any stretch, not am I a lighting historian, so take my speculation for what it's worth, but I think the evidence speaks for itself.

The transition from gas lighting to electric lighting wasn't sharp or sudden. Electric lighting was adopted slowly, there was a period when both gas and electric lights were in use, and the first electric fixtures were nearly identical to gas fixtures.  

One of these is a gas fixture, the other is electric. Can you tell which is which?*

The controls, as well, were very similar. After all, people were more likely to buy things that looked familiar. The knobs at right were early electric switches, reminiscent of the knobs one would use to adjust the amount of gas flow to gas light fixtures.

These removable keys were also used to adjust the gas flow to gas light fixtures. If you look closely at the vintage electric lamp on the right, you can see that the switch is shaped just like the control key for a gas fixture.

I think that electricity is assur on Shabbos simply because lighting was the first home use of electricity, the electric fixtures replaced nearly-identical gas fixtures that actually were assur to use on Shabbos, and people mistakenly thought that they were the same thing. Decades later, when electicity was common and people realized it's not fire, there was a scrambling to justify the extant practice, and so we got the specious idea that closing a switch is maka b'patish (which would also make opening a faucet or closing a gate assur) and then later RSZA's more honest assessment that there's no halchic reason for electricity to be assur on Shabbos, but it is becuase everyone accepts that it is.

*The top one is an early electric fixture, the bottom one is a gas fixture.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Where Have All the Skeptics Gone?

I realized yesterday that only four Jewish blogs on my list post regularly anymore, and they all belong to frum people: DovBear, Rationalist Judaism, Fink or Swim, and one I started following only recently, EmesV'Emunah. The rest post infrequently, if at all, and most have been defunct for years. Even Frum Satire, the site through which I discovered the blogosphere way back when, is a shadow of its former self. There was a time when  almost every time I looked, there was a new post from someone. Now it seems the blogosphere is dying.

When Unpious started up it subsumed a lot of the Chassidshe skeptic blogs, like "A Hasid and A Heretic,"  and "Penned In," (both which are gone now) and of course "Hasidic Rebel." It published essays by those and other bloggers, but Unpious hasn't posted anything in almost a year.

A year ago also there was a short-lived blog, "Diaryof a Jewish Skeptic," which looked promising, but there were only four posts, and nothing for the last year. Two years ago " Divrei Ben Zoma," stopped posting.  It was a blog by a frum guy with a skeptical tendency that explored theological questions. Around the same time a blog I particularly enjoyed, " coin laundry," also stopped posting. Its author was a firmly atheistic Jewish woman from Toronto who was interested in Orthodox practices. There were a lot of interesting conversations over its two-year run.

Three years ago "Orthoprax" stopped posting. He was one of the original skeptic blogs, and ran for five years. He posted once a year ago, but I think it's safe to say his blog is finished. Another of bloggers who was around when I discovered the blogosphere, "FrumHeretic," also stopped posting then. As did two blogs with an academic-ish flavor, " Baruch's Thoughts" and " Textuality." "ThePraxy Project," a collaborative blog belonging to two college-age guys exploring Jewish theology and the mechanisms of belief also ended three years ago.

Four years ago saw the end of the great XGH's blogging career with the deletion of his latest blog, "OrthoModerndox." It was also the end of another of the greats, the " Da'as Hedyot" blog which ran for six years and included many interesting posts, not least of which were his interview series with a diverse group of people who had left the frum world. He posted once two years ago, but that blog is likely also finished. At that time " onionsoupmix," an orthoprax women - and one of the few female Jewish skeptic  bloggers - who had also been blogging for six years decided she didn't care enough about the foibles of the frum world to post anymore. Two of the smaller blogs, " TheSkeptitcher Rebbe" and "Sitting on the Fence" also stopped posting then. And there was a short-lived blog which lasted for less than a year but caused a lot of interest and controversy, "The Orthoprax Rabbi'sBlog."

Five years ago "Frustrated Ortho Jew," "DivreiAcher," and "Notes on Nothing" stopped posting. So did a blog I really enjoyed, "Lunacy Log," which lasted a little less than two years and picked apart the rantings of the Jewish blogosphere's resident troll.

Six years ago "Baal Habos," another of the blogs that was around when I first found the skeptic blogs, ended his run.

And there are others over the years, some interesting, some not, which lasted for a few months or years, then were abandoned, made private, or deleted.

There are a few that still post occasionally, like "UndercoverKofer," "Wolfish Musings," and "Atheodox Jew," but there's nothing like the volume there used to be. Nor do the blogs that stop posting get replaced by new ones like they used to.

So, where is everyone?

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Practice vs. Pedantry

This past week I was at my in-laws for Shabbos. At lunch, they read from a Shabbos halacha book. It is divided into sections to be read at Shabbos meals, and is meant to be finished over the course of one year. Apparently this is something they started doing lately. Anyway, this particular section was about lighting candles Friday night, specifically about what to do if someone is staying at a hotel where everyone lights in the dining room. Since the purpose of lighting candles is to give light, can only  the first person to get to the dining room light with a bracha, or can each person light their own candles and make a bracha?

In the abstract, I suppose this is a valid legalistic question, but it completely misses the point of why people do things like light candles Friday night. People light candles because that's what you do to start Shabbos, because it makes them feel good to perform the ritual and continue the tradition, because without lighting candles Friday night it doesn't feel like Shabbos. In the absence of the book's legalistic discussion, I don't think the question would occur to most people. Lighting candles Friday night is just what you do. From the point of view of how and why people actually perform rituals like candle-lighting, a discussion about whether the light is really necessary is nonsensical. (The fact is that electric lights make lighting candles for light pointless, and yet no one has suggested abolishing the custom, making the whole discussion nonsensical even from a legalistic standpoint, but that's beside the point.)

It reminded me of the famous essay, "Rupture and Reconstruction," about the change in Orthodox transmission of rites and ritual from a memetic one learned naturally in the home and community to a textual one learned through study and consulting authoritative books. In a society with a memetic tradition, the question of whether or not everyone lights with a bracha wouldn't come up, because of course everyone does. Lighting candles Friday night and making a bracha is what one does as Shabbos begins. In a society with a textually-transmitted tradition (or more accurately, where the tradition is learned both memetically and from texts, but where the text is the authority) people must be always consulting the texts so they can be sure they are performing rituals properly, and things that would once have been academic questions of interest only to scholars now intrude into practice.

On the one hand, I'm in favor of people doing things primarily for rational rather than emotional reasons or because that's just how it's done. On the other hand, this legalistic hair splitting ruins some of the useful things that religion does, like grounding people in traditions and rituals that give a sense of significance to the daily rhythm of their lives. It takes something that comes easily and imbues the mundane with a touch of the  transcendent and turns it into a circumscribed chore. It ruins the religious experience and completely misunderstands how and why people perform rituals.

Monday, December 15, 2014

If God Was One of Us…

If God Was One of Us…

A hundred thousand years from now, technology has progressed almost beyond what anyone today could have imagined. A man, an R&D engineer named Bob, is fiddling with his company's latest model of long-distance transporter, and serendipitously discovers how to transport himself outside of space-time. Excited at his new discovery, he grabs a couple of instruments that will let him measure and manipulate the non-space. After a few years, he's figured out how do things in the non-space nothingness.

Using his futuristic technology, Bob creates a universe - our universe, the same one that he came from. Ignoring the paradox, Bob nurtures the universe. Existing outside of space-time, Bob is eternal, and unconstrained by time. His instruments allow him to monitor everything about the universe, and he knows everything that happened/is happening/will happen in the universe. He wants only the best for the inhabitants of the universe, and he can use his technology to manipulate the universe at will. As intelligent beings evolve, Bob gives them instructions for how to best live their lives. Unfortunately these instructions are almost always clothed in mythology, but Bob decides not to interfere too much, and lets the various intelligent species get on with their lives.

Bob is eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent, created the universe and has given revealed wisdom. Is Bob God?

On a completely unrelated note, I came across something really interesting today. Apparently the leading theory for why repeating a word over and over makes it sound like gibberish is that repeating the word causes the neurons that code the meaning of the word to fire over and over. After a few repetitions, the neurological response becomes less and less, much like how when you walk into someone's house you may notice its unique smell, but after a few minutes it fades as your olfactory nerves stops responding to it. As the neurological excitement ceases, you stop noticing the smell - or stop attaching meaning to the sound that you're making.

I think it's fascinating that we have answers to "weird" things like this. And it shows how our experiences really can be reduced to brain functions.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Similar Songs

I always find it interesting how similar different religions are in their outline. This song:

reminded me of this song:

While there are differences, the message of the two songs is very similar.

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?"