Sunday, September 10, 2017

Pascal's scary Wager

Pascal's wager is usually used as a way to scare people into being religious, because, "What if you're wrong?" Among its many, many problems is that it can be used in the same way to scare people into anything. For the same reasons it fails to be convincing for all those other things, it fails to be a convincing argument to believe in God and accept religion.

Pascal's Wager

Wager God exists
Wager God doesn't exist
You're right
Eternal reward
You're wrong
Suffering in Afterlife / missed out on eternal reward

Sex wager
The world will end unless you sleep with me.

Wager I'm telling the truth
Wager I'm lying
You're right
You save the world
You're wrong
World ends

So, your place or mine?

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Objectifying Women

I think that the frum world's claim that tznius decreases the objectification of women, refocusing attention from her body to her inner self, is a misunderstanding of how modesty mores affect objectification. Their model assumes that it's a straight line, like this:

I think it's really a "U" like this:

(Graphs are for illustration only. They are not based on anything other than my speculation.)

Monday, August 21, 2017

Book Cover

I'm thinking of using this as the cover for my book. Any thoughts?

I'm thinking of self-publishing through Amazon, and pricing it at $25. Does that seem reasonable?

I'm also considering, "Reasonable Doubts Regarding Orthodox Judaism, Religion, and God" as a subtitle. It's a bit less confrontational.

I have over nine hundred pages of notes so far. I have a few more books I want to read through for references, and about a hundred pages of assorted notes and links to articles to go through and organize, but the end of the gathering information phase is in sight. I figure another month or two.

I've discovered the main task when writing a book like this is sorting. First gathering and sorting all of the information into chapters and sub-sections, which I've been working on for the last year and a half. Then comes sorting the information in each subsection into points, filling in any gaps, sorting the information in each point into a coherent progression, and finally writing it up. So lots still to do.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Dropping onto Babies and Dropping Bombs

There is a discussion in the gemara (Sanhedrin 74a) about whether you are required to give up your life to avoid being a passive participant in a murder. If someone threatens to kill you unless you allow him to throw you onto a baby, thereby killing it, should you passively allow him to? Tosfos on the gemara says that just as we learn that you may not kill another person to save your own life because "his blood may be redder than yours," that is, his life might be more important than yours, so too you do not have to resist being a passive participant in a murder, because your life may be more important than his. You are not in a position to judge whose life is more important. Resisting would be a judgment that the baby's life is more important. So you shouldn't interfere, and should allow the baby to be killed.

After the Holocaust, Jews around the world (rightly) condemned the world powers for allowing the Holocaust to happen. They excoriated the lack of resistance in Germany, in nations the Nazis conquered, the reluctance of people to help their Jewish neighbors escape the Nazis, and the refusal of the Allies to bomb the camps, railroads, and other infrastructure that made the mass slaughter possible. But why? The world was just following halacha according to Tosefos! You don't have to risk your own life to not be a passive participant in a murder. Whether that means Germans resisting the Nazi government, or Poles hiding their Jewish neighbors, or American and British airmen risking their lives to bomb railroad lines to concentration camps.

For halacha l'maisah, it becomes more complicated. The Yerushalmi learns from the pasuk, "Lo ta'amod al dam re'echa," “Do not stand by your brother's blood.” that one is obligated to put himself at risk to save another's life. But can we fault the world for paskening like Tosofs?

This is what happens when you turn moral questions into legal questions. The question of whether to allow yourself to be thrown onto a baby is strongly reminiscent of the Trolley Problem, and is a question for  philosophy, for ethicists, not jurists. Most people would find it immoral to be complicit in a murder. Turning it into a legal question strips it of its ethical dimension, and allows the question to be decided in a legalistic rather than a moral framework. Even the Yerushalmi, which obligates one to risk himself to save another person, comes to that conclusion on legal grounds based on a proof text, without consideration of the morality of the question.

I wonder if this might tie into the recent spate of arrests in Lakewood. In a community immersed in Talmudic legalism, there may be some who have lost sight of the moral dimension of their actions. They have learned to judge the permissibility of an action based on its halachic legality, without considering its morality. If it's muttar, it's allowable, even if, when on the other side of it, they might complain about its immorality.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Yeridos hadoros

It occurred to me that one reason great scholars of the past appear far smarter than they were is because generations of subsequent scholars have ironed out their work and added layers of supposed depth. A large part of this is the assumption that when a scholar contradicts himself, the solution is never that he changed his mind, or forgot what he had said possibly decades earlier, and certainly not that he made a mistake. Instead, the "apparent" contradiction is reconciled. So a taana's words accrete the clever insights of amoraim  and geonim who lived hundreds of years later, rishonim who lived a thousand years later, and continues to have depth added by current achronim. These centuries of accreted cleverness contribute to the perceived greatness of the taana, who is assumed to have meant all the things that later scholars attribute to him. All of these insights are seen to reflect the scholarship and intellect of the taana, and he appears far more brilliant than he may have been.

So too with amoraim, geonim, etc., but each epoch of scholars has a couple of centuries less worth of clever commentary than the one before it. The older a source is, the more commentary and clever reconciliations is has accreted. So the older the source, the greater it seems, and we have a seeming confirmation of yeridos hadoros.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Shelo asani isha

The bracha "Shelo asani isha" is often defended by Orthodox apologists as being about mitzvos. It's not about men thanking Hashem for not making them someone of lower status, but about thanking Him for not making them someone who had fewer mitzvos. Non-Jew, slaves, and women have fewer mitzvos than men, and so men thank Hashem for not being in a category of people with fewer mitzvos to perform.

I don't think this explanation works.

1. If it is something to thank God for not being, then that means it is undesirable. At the least, the bracha implies that being a woman is less desirable than being a man.

2. It is part of a group of brachos thanking Hashem for not being afflicted. We bless him for opening the eyes of the blind, releasing the bound, straightening the bowed, clothing the naked, etc., giving the Jewish people might and glory, and not making us non-Jews, slaves, or women.

3. If it's about mitzvos, why do women say the bracha thanking God for not making them slaves? Women and slaves are obligated in the same number of mitzvos.*

4. In the same vein, why is there no bracha for kohanim, "Shelo asani Yisrael?"

*Does anyone happen to know offhand where the gemara says this? I found a reference to gitten, but it was four blatt, and I'm not in the mood to comb through it.

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.