Sunday, May 28, 2017

God or Superman?

He is far more powerful than any human. He wants what is best for people. He rescues people from disasters.

Am I describing God, or Superman?

I've realized that many people think of God as Superman. Rather than the omnipotent omniscient deity they would describe if you asked them to tell you about God, they seem to think of God as a powerful and benevolent but quite limited Being. He is dealing the best He can with bad situations. The disasters, even the natural disasters, are not His fault, as they must be if He is omnipotent and there is hashgacha pratis, but just kind of happen. Then, like Superman, He swoops in and tries to rescue people. He may even try to mitigate the disaster. This must be why people say things like, "Thank God, it wasn't worse."

Thank God it wasn't worse?! God caused the earthquake or the tsunami or the plane's engines to fail or allowed the terrible war to happen or guided the bomb to land here instead of there. That it was bad at all is God's fault! Except that they don't think of Him that way. The God they're thinking of isn't the theologically correct God, what someone once described to me as "The Sunday School version" of God. The God they're thanking is Superman, who came rushing over when he heard the plane's engines suddenly go quiet and managed to save one little girl before it crashed. It's sad that the other passengers died, but it isn't His fault. He managed to divert the plane away from the nearby town and save the little girl. Thank God it wasn't worse.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Learning League

There's a gemara that says it is the duty of every Jew (by which it means men, of course) to learn Torah. It runs through excuses that people might offer after death to the Heavenly Court, and counters them with examples of people who overcame those problems.

To the poor person who says he had no time to learn because he had to support his family, the Court will ask him why he wasn't like Hillel, who spent half of the small coin he earned each day to enter the Beis Medrash, and supported his family on the other half.

To the rich man who says he had no time to learn because he had to look after his business, the Court will ask him why he wasn't like Rabbi Elazar, who had a thousand ships but never saw them because he was busy learning.

To the person who says he was too wrapped up in the pleasures the world has to offer, the Court will ask him why he wasn't like Yosef, who was tempted daily by Potiphar's wife and didn't succumb.

Let's leave aside the unfortunate implications of these stories: that Hillel let his children go hungry so that he could go learn, that no hard work is necessary to be successful, and that all people have similar experiences of temptation.

My first thought when I came across the above today was that this was silly. These weren't real people. They were legendary and mythical figures. Maybe a real person had been the seed of the story, but these versions of them weren't real. This gemara was little different than  saying that anyone can be a crime fighting vigilante hero.

To the person who says that childhood trauma prevents him from fighting crime, we can ask him why he isn't like Bruce Wayne, who fights crime as Batman even though he lost his parents at a young age.

To the person who says that a fear of hurting people prevents him from fighting crime, we can ask him why he isn't like Clark Kent, who fights crime as Superman even though he has to constantly take care that his super strength doesn't destroy everything around him.

To the person who says that he is too young to fighting crime, we can ask him why he isn't like Peter Parker, who started fighting crime as Spiderman while still in high school.

And then I realized that there's no going back. Even if I were convinced tomorrow that God is real and Judaism is the way He wants us to live, I would still see the figures the gemara cites as legends and myths. Once your perspective changes, and you see these stories for what they are, you can't unsee it. They might be inspiring, in the same way some people might find Superman inspiring, but they're not real.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

What is Morality? Some Thoughts

First, what it is not. It is not merely those things I dislike, those things which make me angry or which I find disgusting. I may dislike immoral things and find them disgusting, but that is not sufficient  to make them immoral.

Morality is that system of evolved instincts and evolved social norms which allow people to live together in societies, and so to benefit from living in societies. Nothing more, nothing less. That is moral which allows the largest number of people to participate in society without abridging the ability of the individual to reap full benefit from being a member of the society.

That which makes the society one is part of larger is a moral good, so long as it does not do so to the detriment of current members of the society or those who are joining the society as a result of the enlargement.

Morality serves first to allow us to live with and benefit from our immediate social circle, then the next layer of society, and the next, all the way out to humanity as a whole. Therefore it is most moral to benefit your immediate social circle, then the next layer of society, and so on, so long as benefiting one social layer does not harm other members of the wider society.

Morality is that which allows people to live together, and so applies most immediately (only?) to beings which can be classified as people. That is, conscious, sentient social beings. It applies to humans by default, as we cannot meaningfully distinguish humans who meet the criteria for personhood from that subset, if any, who do not.

Morality concerns the well-being and thriving of people as individuals and as communities.

This is not a fallacious Appeal to Nature. That is, I am not saying that this is how morality has developed naturally, therefore this is what it should be. Rather, I am saying that this is what morality is. Morality doesn't have its own ontology, so that it can be shaped by naturalistic (or any other) framework. Morality simply is the system of evolved instincts and evolved social norms which allows people to live together.

Some may object that this robs morality of its moral force, reducing it from something transcendent to something pragmatic. I would argue that it cannot be reduced to pragmatism, because that is simply what it is. That seeing it for what it is may rob it of some of its force is unfortunate, but irrelevant to what it is.

I realize that the description I have given of morality neatly matches by own moral biases. It may be that my moral instincts are perfectly informed by the reality of the nature of morality, in which case I can carry on secure in the conviction that my moral compass is true. But I have to acknowledge that it is more likely that my description of morality has been influenced and shaped by my biases, and so needs review and refinement by people who don't share my particular set of moral assumptions.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Matrilineal Descent

Halacha and the frum world take it for granted that whether a person is born Jewish is determined by whether he or she had a Jewish mother. It is assumed that the principle of matrilineal descent goes back as far as there have been Torah-abiding Jewish people.[1] Yet we see in Tanach many examples of Jewish men marrying non-Jewish women. Yosef marries an Egyptian, Moshe a Mdianite, David a Pilishti, and so on. Their children are all considered Jewish. There is an assumption that these women were migayar, and in the case of Yosef and Osnas, a medrash that claims she was really Jewish all along, but there is no indication of this in the pesukim. There is also some indication in Tanach that a woman who married a non-Jewish man was then considered part of his nation, and their children were not Jewish.

The principle of matrilineal descent doesn't appear in any extra-biblical sources, either. Writers such as Philo of Alexandria and Josephus seem unaware of it, as do the Dead Sea scrolls and various early works which survive but were not canonized as part of Tanach. The earliest recorded instance of the principle of matrilineal descent seems to be in the mishnah.

The Mishnah in Kiddushin 3:12 discusses potential valid and invalid marriages, and states that in a halachically valid marriage, the status of the children is that of the father, i.e., whether the children are cohanim or not. When the marriage is invalid, the children are hallachically fatherless, and follow the status of the mother. A marriage between a Jew and non-Jew in not hallachically valid, so the children's Jewish status depends upon their mother's Jewish or non-Jewish status.
Under Roman law, a child is legally his father's heir only if he is the product of a valid legal marriage. Marriages recognized by the law were restricted to unions between Roman citizens. If a citizen married a non-citizen, the children followed the status of the mother. A Roman father and a non-Roman mother produced non-Roman children. A Roman mother and non-Roman father would theoretically produce Roman children, but a separate, later law dictated that the children follow the parent with the lower status.

The logic is identical to that found in the Mishnah. The Mishnah developed during the period when Judea was ruled by Rome. It seems more likely that the law of the powerful Roman Empire, which was legally binding throughout the empire,  influenced Jewish jurors in the Roman province of Judea in the first centuries CE than that a hitherto unattested law from the backwater kingdom of Judah influenced Roman jurors hundreds of years earlier.[2] It is likely, then, that matrilineal descent, the method by which we determine who is Jewish, is originally not a Torah principle but a Roman one. That something so fundamental to Jewish identity could have originated in another culture undermines the idea that Judaism as practiced today in the frum world is essentially the same as it has been down through the ages.

[1] The following discussion of matrilineal descent is based on Cohen, S.J.D. (2001). The Matrilineal Principle in Historical Perspective. AJS Review. Retrieved from
[2] The author of the article provides another suggestion for the origin of matrilineal descent. He says that it may be part of the mishnah's fascination with categorizing things, and points to a discussion of kilayim, an animal such as a mule which is the offspring of two species. There is an opinion there that the species of the animal follows the mother, and so too, the author suggests, in cases of two nationalities the child follows the mother. I would suggest that it is more likely that his first explanation is correct, and matrilineal descent was borrowed from Roman law. The logic of the Roman law and of the Mishnah is identical, and given the historical timing of the Mishnah is probably not a coincidence. If so, then the principle of matrilineal descent with regard to children may have been applied to cases of kilayim, rather than the other way around.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Confidence and Illusory Reliability

In The Invisible Gorilla[1] the authors discuss various cognitive biases or typical errors in thinking they have found in their psychological research. Among them is the illusion of competence created by an air of confidence. They relate an incident in which one of them discovered a rash on his leg and went to see a doctor. The doctor looked through a book on skin rashes to reach a diagnosis, and then consulted another book for the appropriate treatment. Her need to consult books made the author uneasy. It made her seem less competent than a doctor who could diagnose the condition and prescribe treatment without having to look it up. Later research he conducted confirmed that most people shared his feelings, and felt the doctor who had to look things up was less competent. But why was this?

The authors hypothesize that we tend to judge a person's competence by their confidence. A doctor who confidently diagnoses a condition seems more competent than one who is less certain and needs to consult a reference. This is likely because confidence is usually the result of experience. A doctor who had seen a particular condition many times will confidently diagnose and treat it. Where confidence is a result of experience, which it typically is, it really is a valid measure of competence. But what about when the confidence displayed is not warranted?

Would it have been better for the author's doctor to confidently assert she knew the cause of his rash when she wasn't certain? Obviously not. By checking her references, she confirmed her diagnosis and was able to find the proper treatment. Checking was clearly better than confidently giving an unjustified diagnosis. Yet the author would have trusted her diagnosis more if she had done just that.
I think the cognitive bias of confidence is part of the explanation for why many people perceive religious doctrine to be more trustworthy  than scientific conclusions. Religious doctrine confidently asserts its truths. Science, on the other hand, can give only tentative conclusions, contingent on the evidence. Religion steadfastly maintains confidence in its doctrines, while scientific theories are often refined and occasionally completely overthrown as more information becomes available. Who is more believable, the rav who confidently asserts that evolution is nonsense, or the scientist who says that the evidence leads him to conclude that different species evolved, though he can't be sure about the mechanism for this detail and who used to think that dinosaurs were scaly, but now says they had feathers!?

Unfortunately, the confidence with which religious doctrines are asserted  is not the result of expertise, but of faith. They are accepted primarily because the religion requires acceptance  of those doctrines and vilifies disagreement with them as heresy. No one has expertise in the unity of God, or the resurrection of the dead. Yet these and many other religious precepts are confidently asserted, and that confidence creates an unwarranted sense of their reliability.

[1] Chabris, C. F., & Simons, D. J. (2010). The invisible gorilla: And other ways our intuitions deceive us. New York: Crown.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Agudah's Disappointing Discussion of Adult Dissidents

I saw this video the other day when someone linked to it on facebook. It's from the recent Agudah Convention, and is titled, " Diving Off The Derech - The Emerging Adult At Risk Phenomenon" It features self-proclaimed experts on the "new" phenomenon of adults in their twenties and thirties going off the derech (OTD). To put it mildly, it was disappointing. There were no insights, only oblique acknowledgment of problems within the frum community, and no recognition that anyone might legitimacy and sincerely disagree with them about the tenets of Orthodox Judaism. Instead there was repetition of all the tired old canards routinely leveled at those who go OTD.

The first speaker introduced the subject. As part of the introduction he told the audience about a man who was no longer frum who had told him that Yiddishkeit didn't mean anything to him anymore, that he was "dead inside." The way he told the story gave me the impression that he was paraphrasing, that he had interpreted this man's lack of feelings towards Judaism as a general spiritual malaise. The implication here is that if one doesn't find Yiddishkeit meaningful, it is because they are dead inside. It got worse from there.

The next speaker told a story about a young man who, when he got married, had as one of his conditions that the girl had to agree to learning for a year in Israel. They ended up staying there for four years, and then he spent two more years in kollel in the U.S. Some years after he had left kollel, he started to drop observances. He slowly stopped going to shul, keeping Shabbos, and putting on teffillin. His wife went to his Rosh Yeshiva, who told her to ride it out, it was just a phase. (Isn't it odd that she went to the Rosh Yeshiva instead of talking to her husband? Maybe she did, and the speaker didn't think it was relevant?) Then one Yom Kippur she got the kids ready for shul and came downstairs to find him eating breakfast. Motzei yom tov she took the kids and left.

The speaker emphasized that the young man was a good husband and father, and told the story to make a point about how kids in the frum world are raised in a bubble that doesn't prepare them to interact with the wider world. This is a valid point, and I'm glad to see it being acknowledged. But then the speaker had the audacity to characterize this story as the guy "walking out on his family." She left him, but apparently failure to conform to frum norms is tantamount to going out for cigarettes and never coming home. It was at this point, about twenty minutes in and just past the introduction, that my blood started to boil.

Then he made his point about growing up in cloistered communities more specific, and ruined it. He claimed that people are insufficiently connected to their Yiddishkeit, that they're just going through the motions, and when they come into contact with the wider world, they, " see everything in the world, and don't understand why they can't be part of it." As though people leave primarily because of the pull of the outside world, a version of the ever-popular "people go OTD because they can't control their taivos" canard.

It's interesting to note that in her book Off the Derech, Faranak Margolese makes the point that, "Most formerly observant Jews today seem to have left, not because the outside world pulled them in, but rather because the observant one pushed them out. They experienced Judaism as a source of pain… so they did what was natural: run in the other direction.[1]" Her research shows that the speaker has it completely wrong.

The final speaker was R' Shaya Cohen, the director of Priority1, an organization whose goal is to keep kids from going OTD. He showed recognition of some of the issues that cause people to leave Orthodoxy, such as the suppression in schools of questions without pat comfortable answers, the dissatisfaction with, "the torah says so" as an explanation for why frum people do what they do, and the enforced conformity and uniformity is yeshivos and bais yakovs.

While he pointed out some of the problems that cause people to go OTD, it's interesting that his criticisms of the frum community were all spun as inevitable minor issues or even as the result of the community's successes.  He points to the growth of the frum community as the root cause of the problem, as though the community can't keep up with its own success. This is despite frum people being only about ten percent[2] of all Jews, a percentage that has been steady for decades[3]. He says that the issues that bother people who go OTD should be acknowledged, which is good, but then he says that this is not because there is actually anything wrong with the system, "the system is good, everything is great," or anything wrong with the community or the Torah. It is because the OTD person has been influenced by outside factors or has misinterpreted things. The system didn't work for the OTD person because he "had some unique questions, …some unique problems, … psychological problems, … emotional problems, … family problems." There may be issues in the community and school system that need be addressed, but these are issues only because there is some problem with the person who went OTD. If they were normal people, they wouldn't have had these problems. And so the audience and the community are shielded from any real criticism.

He characterizes the adults he sees who are OTD as in pain, and asks, "What can we do, not just for the poor suffering families, but for the poor suffering individuals themselves, that are hurting so much inside? I can tell you from experience that these people deep down want nothing more than a yiddishkeit than can work for them." He claims that the people he sees complain about an emptiness, a void that isn't filled. That as much as they blame their parents and teachers and the frum world, inside they blame themselves, "I must have been unworthy to have gone this way."

I moved fully away from belief in Orthodox Judaism as an adult, and I didn't experience any of what he describes. I didn't suffer, I don't feel empty inside, and I don't think that I stopped believing in the supernatural because I'm unworthy to have emunah. What nonsense. I wonder, though, if all of this might be true of the people sees. These might be people who are going through a painful process of losing their faith, and are looking for a rabbi to guide them, or people whose families have pressured them into seeing a rabbi in order to "save" them from going OTD. If they feel awful about themselves, though, it is because everyone in their lives has been telling them how awful they are for going OTD, not because of some missing metaphysical fulfillment or pain in their non-existent neshama.

Although R' Cohen knows the reasons that people go OTD, he doesn't seem to really understand them, and dismisses them all as "excuses," as something the OTD person tells himself to rationalize his behavior and his drifting away from frumkeit. In other words, there are no kashas, only teirutzim. He says that these excuses need to dealt with, because they prevent people from dealing with other issues, but the  intellectual issues OTD people raise are just excuses. He doesn't seem to recognize that people can think these things sincerely, and have the issues affect their behavior. He assumes it must be the other way around, that they are doing things not in keeping with their upbringing, and then looking for excuses to make themselves comfortable with their behavior. I had to stop watching for a bit at this point. I can only take so much of someone insulting me in one sitting.

R' Cohen says, dismissively, that "the biggest excuse used to be tzadik v'ra lo." As though the Problem of Evil is some inconsequential excuse, and not something that philosophers and theologians have struggled with for thousands of years. As though the logical paradox presented by a tri-omni god is not a good reason to conclude that He doesn't exist. Then again, there's a reason that the name Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who first posed the Problem of Evil, became the word for Jewish heretics.

He then says that, "today there's a better excuse, and an excuse it is. When they hear about the behavior of the so-called righteous, they get turned off. It's a bad excuse. It's a disgusting excuse!" It's a disgusting excuse?! Why disgusting? Should we excuse the behavior of people who are claimed to be righteous, who are community leaders? Should we not take it as evidence of something rotten in the religion when those held up as religious exemplars behave despicably?

He finishes his litany of "excuses" with, "they're not really sure about what happened at Har Sinia," as though this is some silly issue. As if only someone looking for an excuse would question the veracity of matan torah, and as if doubting that matan torah happened is not a good reason to stop being frum.

Then he reveals the "real" reasons that people go OTD. "They aren't understanding, what's in it for me? We can't rely on long-term, we need to show them what's in it for them in the here and now." In other words, OTD people aren't really questioning whether there's any truth to Orthodoxy, they're children who don't understand delayed gratification and are leaving frumkeit because they aren't getting anything from frumkeit right now. To be fair, I think he's right that whether religious practice does something positive for a person has a larger influence on whether he will maintain that practice than do promises of Heaven,  but the way he makes that point is insulting.

He goes on, "they need someone who can explain to them how Yiddishkeit can bring them happiness, they need happiness, because they sure don't got it, especially when they're deserting their family and their children." Because we all know that OTD people are miserable, irresponsible burnouts who are in pain and dead inside, right? What's worse, often it's the frum spouse that leaves, takes the kids, and fights against the OTD parent having custody or even contact, with the full support of their community behind them. This is the OTD person deserting their family and children?  Not unless you characterize not toeing the frum  line as desertion. And again, here we find the characterization of those who go OTD as unhappy without Yiddishkeit. There are plenty of OTD people who are happy.

In addition to being something frum people tell themselves to assure themselves that frumkeit is the only way to live, I wonder if this might be an artifact of the people he sees. He's likely to see people who are newly OTD, who are going through the turmoil of leaving the only world they've known, of their families' initial reaction to their deconversion, and of losing friends, family, and even their kids. Of course people going through that are not happy. He's unlikely to see people who have been OTD for years and built happy successful lives.

The end of R' Cohen's talk in the worst part. He explains that many people who go OTD feel that they were loved by their parents and friends contingently, only so long as they kept doing what frum society required of them. Not because they were people, who are intrinsically worthy of love and respect. They were loved for what they did, not for who they were. He claims that, "in fact, many share a deep dark secret that going off started as a test to see if your acceptance is of me, or of the way I conduct my life." He says that it's important to validate the OTD person, to show them that you care about them as people and are open to their concerns. That's wonderful, right? He's right when he says that the frum person doesn't have to agree with the person who went OTD, but he should show him love and respect as a person and accept that the OTD person has real concerns.

And then it all goes south. R' Cohen says that once you've done this, once you've shown the OTD person love and acceptance and validated his concerns, "you become the most important person in the world. You have them in the palm of your hand, you can guide them, direct them." That's not at all manipulative and cult-like, is it? He correctly talks about how people feel they are loved for what they do, rather than who they are, and how this is corrosive to their religiosity. Then he gleefully explains how to exploit this by acting as though you care about them, regardless of what they do, while all the time only cultivating the relationship so that you can manipulate them into doing what you think they should. What he's advocating is duplicitous and hypocritical. It's downright Machiavellian.

It's odd that he shows no concern that one of the people he's counseling might see this video, bringing the whole manipulative scheme crashing down, and leaving that person feeling betrayed. Even if he wasn't concerned for the person's feelings, wouldn't he be worried about losing a yiddishe neshama? Perhaps he wasn't aware he was being filmed or that Agudah would put the video online. If so, though, what was the person who put the video online thinking?

So much of this video is them assuring themselves that there isn't any valid reason for someone to leave Orthodoxy. It's one thing when you're talking about teenagers, who can be impulsive, rebellious, immature, and unsophisticated, but when adults leave, it raises the possibility that there are real problems. So it must be that these people are in pain, are dead inside, that they leave because they weren't given the proper appreciation of Yiddishkeit as children and are seduced away from it by the outside world.

There is recognition on the part of R' Cohen of the things that people who go OTD complain about/ say motivate them to leave, but he dismisses all of them, social, emotional, and philosophical, as excuses. He correctly identifies the resentment many feel when their parents and teachers show them that they care more about what they do, about whether they perform required rituals and behave as frum society dictates is proper, than they do about the person as an individual worthy of love and respect. But then he advises those who are counseling people at risk of going OTD to engage in manipulative behavior where they pretend to care more about the person as an individual than they do about conformity to expected behaviors, all with the goal of manipulating the OTDer into conforming with frum society's norms.

I think a major cause of this reprehensible rhetoric is Agudah's inability to admit even the possibility that they might be wrong about Judaism, forcing them to protect the inviolable purity of the community and refusing to acknowledge that people can have sincere and valid issues with the community and with Orthodox Judaism. As is often the case, dogmatism prevents meaningful communication.

Some might wonder why I care enough to watch an hour-long video and write a long post picking it apart. After all, I'm not the target audience for either this video or for the tactics it discusses. Neither I nor my community look to Agudah for guidance. Let them do their thing, let them think what they want, and let it be. It's not like I'm going to change the minds of anyone who was at that convention.

I care because the attitudes disseminated by Agudah do influence wider frum society, and for better or worse, I live in that society. I care because my family, including most of my extended family, does look to Agudah for guidance. I care because my brother went to ZA and considers R' Cohen his Rosh Yeshiva, and I know I can't discuss this video with him without us both getting upset. I care because of the pervasive insulting characterization of those who leave  frumkeit by those who have influence over the lives of people who might be questioning the truths they were raised with. I care because I'm not a Christian, and when someone smacks me in the face with an insulting diatribe, I'm not going to turn the other cheek.

[1] Margolese, F.(2005). Off the Derech. Jerusalem, Israel: Devora Publishing Company (page 37)
[2] Pew Research Center, (2013, October 1). A Portrait of Jewish Americans. Retrieved from
[3] " Eleven percent of American Jews defined themselves as Orthodox in the 1970 study… That figure has remained relatively consistent." Elazar, D.J. How Strong is Orthodox Judaism -- Really? The Demographics of Jewish Religious Identification. Jerusalem Center for Public Affaris. Retrieved from

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Producing Prayer's Perceptions II

Feelings of spiritual transcendence and oneness with God and/or the universe can be attributed to a purely physiological phenomenon. There is a region of the brain that neuroscientists call the orientation association area (OAA) that orients us in physical space. It is this area that controls our perception of ourselves in relation to the objects around us and differentiates between "me" and "not me." People with damage to this part of the brain have trouble navigating through even familiar spaces, and will frequently bump into things that a typical person will easily avoid.

It has been found that meditation and some drugs can cause activity in the OAA to decrease. As its function of differentiating between a person and the rest of the world  decreases, the person feels a sense of connection to things outside himself. Damage to the OAA, in addition to bumping into things, can cause people to spontaneously experience feelings of spiritual transcendence. 

This is a physiological explanation for the feelings people may experience during davening. Davening is a form of meditation, and can at times cause the OAA to go into hibernation. The spiritual feelings people experience are likely not the result of a connection with the divine, but are the result of a malfunction in the brain that blurs the boundaries between "me" and "not me."