Monday, August 3, 2015

Warm People, Obnoxious Groups

I heard an interview today with Megan Phelps, the granddaughter of the infamous Fred Phelps, reverend of the Westboro Baptist Church. She and her sister left the church a few years ago, and in the interview she describes what it was like to grow up in and be a part of the fundamentalist, hate-mongering group.

One of the most interesting things she described was how her family (which makes up most of the church's seventy or so members) were as individuals. She describes them as loving, as teaching her the importance of being kind and polite and of getting good grades in school and contributing to society. They see the hateful signs they hold while picketing as messages of love. When they hold up a sign that says, "God hates fags," they don't see themselves as expressing something hateful, but as informing people of the error of their ways so that their fellow countrymen may repent and save their country from God's wrath in this world and themselves from an eternity of torture in Hell in the next. They do this out of love of their fellow man in an attempt to save them, not out of hatred.

I can't help but draw parallels with the Chareidi world. Not with the picketing and hateful signs. Most Chareidim are not so crass. But with the people who are warm as individuals and obnoxious as a group. With the people who say awful things about others, and sincerely believe they are just giving mussar. With the people who justify distasteful attitudes and behaviors with passages from holy texts and a conviction that they are doing the will of God.

It never ceases to fascinate me how different religions all follow the same patterns. The details differ, but the outlines are the same.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Book Review: Cut Me Loose

I was in the library on Friday picking out books and was about to go to check out when I noticed "Cut Me Loose" sitting by itself at the end of a half-empty shelf. I took it out and read it over Shabbos. It was not what I expected.

I had some idea of what it was about, having read some reviews around the blogosphere when it came out a year ago. I knew that the book chronicled Leah Vincent's journey away from the religion of her Yeshivish upbringing, and that part of that journey had included clashes with her family and ill-advised sexual encounters. I was expecting a story about how she had become disenchanted with Orthodox Judaism, had made some mistakes learning to integrate with general society, and had ultimately been successful in doing so. I was expecting to root for her against the forces of frum society that had wronged and alienated so many of us who frequent the skeptic blogs (or these days, facebook posts). Instead, I found myself saddened by what Leah had experienced, but also sympathetic to the people around her who were dealing with a clearly unstable person.

The book is well-written and engaging. I didn't want to put it down. The book is published by Doubleday and seems intended for a general audience, but there were many nuances that I think would be lost on someone who had never been a part of the yeshivish community. Not because  one had to be a part of the community to understand, but because these things weren't explained. Nor would it have been difficult or cumbersome to include explanations. Here and there, the author does explain. For instance, when she writes that her father was often invited to speak at the Agudah conventions, she adds that it is a powerful Orthodox lobbying group. It's an addition of half a sentence that gives the reader context. Yet in many other places that addition is missing. For instance, she describes her brothers running up and down the stairs shouting Hebrew words (which she transliterates), but neglects to mention that they were singing a song (easily recognizable to anyone familiar with Jewish music of the era), instead leaving the impression that the little boys in her crazy religious family shouted Hebrew incantations while playing. In another place she describes having day-dreamed about having Rabbi Matisyahu Solomon officiate at her wedding, but neglects to explain his stature (easily done: "dean of the largest yeshiva in the United States"), leaving a typical reader without any understanding of the  daydream's significance. In yet another she describes a conversation with her sister where she is asked to "promise without a promise," a literal translation of "bli neder" that sounds ridiculous, as do many idioms when taken literally.

For much of the first half of the book, I felt angry as her family over reacted to her transgressions. She's banned from the seminary of her choice when it's discovered she's been corresponding with a boy. Her parents cut off her allowance when she spends a month's worth of money on a borderline-untznius sweater. Her sister, who she is staying with, hides letters Leah's friend sends to her, and only pretends to mail the letters Leah writes. When she moves to New York, she can barely afford necessities on her minimum-wage income, and often goes without meals. When she calls her mother, desperate for help, her mother tells her to stop being so dramatic, and sends her only twenty dollars.

As the book progresses, and she describes more and more of her dysfunctional behavior, I began to suspect that rather than the victim of circumstance and religious extremism her narrative implies, she was instead someone with a serious clinical disorder. I'm not qualified to make a diagnosis, and even if I were, you can't diagnose someone without having evaluated them in person, but what she describes seems like a textbook case of Borderline Personality Disorder. People who go OTD are too often dismissed in the frum world as unbalanced, and I'm loathe to perpetuate the stereotype, but in this case I think it may be accurate.

The diagnostic criteria for BPD include, " A pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects, and marked impulsivity beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of context." Leah's relationships with men, to which she devotes a lot of space, are highly unstable and frequently end abruptly. She often makes impulsive decisions with negative consequences, like blowing a month's worth of money on a sweater, going to a club and allowing a man to have sex with her on the dance floor, or suddenly deciding to stop eating. 

"Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment." Leah's narrative is one of constant abandonment, first by her family, then by her community, and then by the string of men she throws herself at in a desperate attempt to find self-worth in her sexuality. 

"A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation," an accurate description of Leah's relationships with her family and especially with her "boyfriends," each of whom is described as wonderful, life changing, and the love of her life while she is dating him, but is reduced to his basest traits as soon as they break up.

"Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., spending, sex, Substance Abuse, reckless driving, binge eating)." She engages in impulsive, damaging sex on almost every page. Several times she describes impulsively spending money she needed for food or other necessities on things like the sweater mentioned above or high-priced cocktails at a bar. And sprinkled though the book are accounts of binge-eating in an attempt to control her emotions or fill an emotional emptiness.

"Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behavior." Through much of the second half of the book Leah regularly cuts herself to relieve her psychological distress, and several times describes imagining killing herself, including an incident where she actually swallows a bottle of painkillers and another where she almost slashes her wrists, stopping only after she had already made a small cut deep enough to leave a scar.

"Chronic feelings of emptiness," which she describes after her estrangement from her family, which led her to constantly look for another man as each of her relationships failed, and, as mentioned above, she sometimes attempted to fill with food.

Leah recounts a childhood conversation with her mother in which her mother dismissed mental disorders as a scam dreamt up by pharmaceutical companies to sell drugs. Yet her father in a published letter claimed that Leah had been under the care of a psychiatrist since she was thirteen. I don't know which is the more accurate version of events, but if it is true that Leah has BPD, and that she has been treated since she was a young teenager, it casts her story in a different light than the one she is trying to tell. Her parents deciding not to give her attention when she acts out are not the actions of cruel and distant parents, but the reasonable (if perhaps mistaken) reaction of people who have for years been dealing with their daughter's destructive outbursts. Her mother dismissing her plea for help when she can't make ends meet isn't the actions of a callous and uncaring woman, but that of someone used to dramatic pronouncements and irresponsible behavior. Her description of her final encounter with her father, and his refusal to engage when she tearfully asks him why he cut her off and no longer expresses love is not the actions of a man who has tossed his daughter aside for small infractions of religious law, but of a father who has long ago reached the end of his rope, and is refusing to be dragged yet again into the toxic quagmire that experience has taught him engaging with his daughter inevitably leads to.

I don't doubt that Leah's description of events is how she perceived them, and that she experienced them that way makes me sad for her. I want to go back in time and comfort the lonely, miserable girl she was. And yet, I can't help but think that if I could, it would just be the beginning of another toxic relationship for her, where she would try to seduce me and build an ultimately destructive relationship if she was successful, or berate herself as disgusting undesirable garbage if she failed.

At the end of the book, where in a few pages she describes how she finally turned her life around, got into Harvard, got married, and had a child, she mentions that her family still regards her as crazy and toxic. It's heavily implied that this is because she's no longer observant.  Maybe. Or maybe they regard her that way because, for most of her life, that's what she was.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Practical Beliefs, part 2

Part 1

I think that we can answer the first question, " How do we determine what, if any, of what we experience is real?" with another question, "What difference does it make?" This may seem unsatisfying at first, but bear with me.

Suppose that I'm hungry. Does it matter if the world I experience isn't real? If, say, I'm a conscious computer program, and  there is no such thing as a human stomach, or food, or a mouth? If I respond to my hunger by eating, the unpleasant sensation of hunger will go away, and I'll have the pleasurable experiences of eating food, the smell, taste, and feel of something tasty and satisfying. If I ignore my hunger, I'll experience increasingly painful hunger pangs. Therefore whether or not there is such a thing as a stomach or food in an objective sense, I am forced to behave as if they are real.

Whatever there may be "out there," I am forced by my subjective experiences of pleasure and pain to treat what I perceive as real. Once I am treating my perceptions as real, I can form beliefs about them, such as, "If I eat food, I won't be hungry for a while." These beliefs may or may not mirror an objective reality, but that doesn't matter. They're practical beliefs about my consistent perceptions that allow me to navigate the world I experience. I can empirically explore that world, learning how it functions and adding or altering my practical beliefs about it based on what I learn.

Whether or not what I experience is objectively real truly makes no difference, so long as my experience is consistent. My subjective experience forces me to treat my perceptions as if they are real, and I can build a consistent system of beliefs on that experience. Whether or not what I experience is real is an interesting question in the abstract, what difference does it make?

Which brings us to the second question, "Are we justified in making any and all claims about reality, given that all claims are equally unprovable?" We can make any and all claims about some objective reality "out there," but again, what difference does it make? Unless there is something I experience, I can't form practical beliefs about it. I can guess at what things are like outside the Matrix, but those are just guesses.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Practical Beliefs, part 1

The question of how we know what we know is a complicated one, with an entire branch of philosophy, epistemology, devoted to it. The biggest problem is that there's almost nothing that we can know for certain. All of our information about the world comes to us through our senses, and we have no way of knowing if what are senses tell us reflects anything  "out there," whether there is an objectively real world that is reflected in our sense data or if everything we experience is an illusion.

Descartes illustrated the problem by positing a deceptive demon who fed him sights, sounds, smells etc. to simulate a reality that doesn't really exist.  Since 1999 The Matrix has been the go-to analogy. The world experienced by those in the Matrix is a perfect illusion. How can any of us know if we are in the Matrix? And, since we may be in the Matrix, how can we know what is real? Or even if there is anything at all?

Descartes found one thing we can be certain of: we each can be certain of our own existence. If we experience things and think about things, there must be something doing the experiencing and thinking.  It may be something completely unlike what we think ourselves to be, something not remotely human, but there has to be something that is doing the thinking. Descartes famously summed up this single ontological certainty as, "Cogito, ergo sum," "I think, therefore I am."

But what now? If all we can be certain of is our individual existence, how do we determine what, if any, of what we experience is real? And are we justified in making any and all claims about reality, given that all claims are equally unprovable?

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Maximizing Mitzvos

I was talking with a friend of mine yesterday, and he raised an interesting question: Is the increasingly-fast chumrah creep good or bad for Orthodoxy's numbers? And by extension, for those who care about such things, for the amount of Torah being learned and mitzvos being kept?

Of course, no one is cynically controlling the creation and maintenance of chumros, but if you could, how would adding chumrahs - or taking them away - affect the amount of people who identify as Orthodox? On the one hand, I think that the increasingly restrictive chumros raise the bar for entry to Orthodoxy, so that fewer people are willing to accept Orthodoxy than might have been if there were fewer restrictions and therefore fewer people are keeping (Orthodoxy's version of) halacha. On the other hand, chumros supposedly enhance the mitzvos that are being done, and practically, often act to create a barrier to leaving for those already in.

So if we could deliberately set the level of chumros/debatable halacha at a point to maximize the mitzvah-points being earned, the perfect blend of quantity and quality, where would that point be?

Friday, May 29, 2015

History Stories

I think that history is often taught the wrong way. Kids learn history as unconnected chunks of stuff they have to memorize, as boring lists of names and dates, as stuff that happened once upon a time a long time ago.

I recently read "The Last of the Doughboys" by Richard Rubins. The book is a history of the American involvement in WWI told through interviews with American veterans of the war. Interviews the author conducted in the early 2000s. One interview I found particularly interesting was done in 2003, with a man who was 110 years old. He talked a bit about his experiences as a combat engineer in 1918, repairing railroads for the Allies and blowing up German bridges. He also talked about his parents, who had been born slaves in the antebellum south and had been married, as free people, just after the Civil War ended.

My personal connection to history only goes back as far as the 1920s, to the depression in Germany after WWI and my grandfather's story of how he got a million marks for his bar mitzvah and that was just enough money to buy a candy bar in the store around the corner. Yet in 2003, while I was in college, there was a man in this country who could remember his parents stories, the experiences of people who were adults when Lincoln was elected. I've been to a few Civil War battlefields, read the markers and looked at the memorials and cannon and tried to imagine what it was like to have been on those fields when those guns were firing. As recently as 2003, there was someone who could remember his parents telling him what it was like to wait for news of those battles.

That's what history is, and how it should be taught. History is memories, stories from our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. And from other people, and their parents and grandparents. Anyone who could have talked to this man about his life would have listened to his stories. When people get together, that's what we do. We trade stories about our lives, about our personal histories. The older the stories and the more different than our own, the more interesting they are. People who found it boring to memorize who Lincoln and Davis were, to remember names and dates like Fort Sumter, 1861 and Appomattox Court House, 1865 would have found it easy and interesting to listen to this man talk about his parents.

As a rule, the best histories are the ones that, like novels, focus on the experiences of a handful of main characters and tell the story of the events through their experiences. When history is, "This happened at this place to these people on this date, and then this happened to these people on this date, and then…" it's artificial and boring. When history is used as a tool for moralizing,  whether it's the apocryphal story about Washington and the cherry tree or the myth of the pious shtetle, it becomes a fairy tale, something that happened once upon a time a long time ago to story characters who aren't like us or anyone we know. When history is the stories people tell about themselves, their family and their friends it's real things that happened to real people, anecdotes that we would happily spend an afternoon trading with friends. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Purim Mythconceptions

There is a general sense in the frum world that the way things are done now is the way they've always been. Some take this to ridiculous extremes, claiming that they share even their social norms and communal idiosyncrasies with religious Jews down through the ages, but even those with a more realistic view of how practices develop tend to assume that certain things, like holiday customs, are more or less kept now as they have always been. The truth is that customs evolve over time. New customs are invented and replace old customs, customs are carried on with their original intent lost, and things that started as something cute come to be taken seriously.

The purpose of this post is not  to try to ruin Purim. Whatever the holiday's origins or the origin of particular customs may be, the day itself is a lot of fun. Debunking misconceptions doesn't take away from that. Things can be enjoyable and meaningful even if they don't go back quite as far as we thought they did or commemorate what we thought they commemorated. But I think it's important to live in the real world, and part of that is understanding how these things really got started.

The following is a list of the origins of some of Purim's practices.


The popular myth
The triangular cookies are eaten on Purim in remembrance of what Haman tried to do to us because Haman wore a triangular hat (or had triangular pockets).

The probable true origin
There has been a tradition to eat sweets made with poppy seeds and honey on Purim at least as far back as Ibn Ezra (1089–1164), who writes about it. In Yiddish poppy seeds are "man" and "tasch" means "pocket." In Central Europe mantaschen - poppy pockets - were a popular Purim treat, in keeping with the long tradition of sweet poppy treats on Purim. At some point, either as a pun or mistakenly, people  started calling the cookies "hamantaschen." The true etymology of the name was forgotten by most people, and the myth developed that the cookies symbolized Haman's triangular hat. Today, most depictions of Haman show him in a triangular hat, based on nothing more than the similarity between his name and that of a popular Purim treat.

Taanis Esther

The popular myth
We fast on the day before Purim in remembrance of the fast that Esther asked the Jews in Shsushan to hold for three days before she went to speak to Achashverosh on their behalf. Taanis Esther is part of the Purim holiday, a day of introspection before the day of celebration.

The probable true origin
The day before Purim used to be a different holiday, Yom Nicanor. As detailed in Megillas Taanis (which discusses many no-longer extant Jewish holidays), this holiday commemorated the victory of the Chashmonaim over the Seleucid general Nicanor. Nicanor had been sent to Judea as governor by the Seleucid king Demetrius only a generation after the events of Chanukah. He was told by the king to reinstate the ousted kohen gadol Alcimus. When the Jews refused, Nicanor declared war. He was eventually defeated on the thirteenth of Adar. The Chashmonaim, who had removed Alcimus for being too Hellinized, then did a very Hellinistic thing and declared the day a holiday for all time in commemoration of their victory. As time went on the Chashmonaim became more and more Hellenized. After they lost power the Rabbonim went out their way to erase the effects the (in their view) tainted dynasty had on Judaism. As part of that effort, they replaced Yom Nicanor with Taanis Esther. For generations, Jews had two back-to-back holidays in Adar, Yom Nicanor and Purim. Taanis Esther is not so much part of the Purim package as it is a political move meant to erase the Hellenized influence of the Chashmonaim from Judaism.

Noise During "Haman"

The popular myth
We make noise when Haman's name is read to drown it out, to show our disapproval and to erase his name. This is despite the obligation to hear every word of the megillah, which obligates the baal koreh to repeat the word after everyone has calmed down, defeating the purpose of drowning out Haman's name. It is also despite the fact that this custom, far from obliterating Haman's name, causes people (especially kids) to pay special attention to his name in order to make noise at the right moment, and that the effect is that it seems we're cheering for the story's villain.

The probable true origin
The custom of erasing Haman's name used to be taken more literally. People would write Haman's name on the bottom of their shoes (which some still do) or on rocks. When Haman's name was read, they would stomp their feet or bang the rocks together, literally erasing his name. In time, the practice of writing out his name in order to erase it faded away, but the noise from foot-stomping and rock-banging remained. The current custom, then, is essentially a mistake,  continuing to reproduce a side-effect of the original custom without any of its substance.

The popular myth
We wear costumes on Purim because Hashem's actions in the Purim story were hidden. Just as He disguised  Himself, so too we disguise ourselves. The usual way things would be expected to work out, that the citizens of the powerful Persian Empire would destroy the weak Jews when ordered to do so, was turned on its head, and instead the Jews destroyed their enemies. So we turn things upside down on Purim and be silly to commemorate the unexpected turn of events. We drink on Purim in celebration of our survival, and have a mitzvah to get so drunk that we don't know the difference between Mordechai hatzadik and Haman harasha.

The probable true origin
Purim falls out roughly the same time of year as Carnival, the Feast of Fools, and other similar holidays. All of these holidays have as part of their celebration masquerading, drinking, and a reversal of the usual order of things. In ancient Rome and medieval Europe, it was common for the social order in particular to be upended during the holiday, with a commoner being appointed "lord" for the duration of the holiday and the aristocracy serving him. These holiday customs can be traced back to older winter holidays such as Saturnalia. It is likely that Purim either borrowed traditions from these holidays or that both Purim and these holidays share traditions from an older source.

The Purim Story
The popular myth
The megillah recounts a historical event in which the righteous Mordechai and Esther thwarted the plot of the evil Haman and saved the Jews of the Persian Empire from annihilation.

The probable true origin
Although extensive records have survived from the Persian Empire, there is no mention of anything resembling the Pruim story. "Mordechai" is a Babylonian name which means, "servant of Marduk," (the chief god of the Babylonian pantheon) and "Esther" is a variant spelling of "Ishtar," a popular goddess in the Ancient Near East, also known as Isis in Egypt, Asarte in Greek, and Asherah in Canaan. At best, these Jewish heroes who, according to the commentaries, protested other Jews assimilating into Persian society and attending the king's feast, were named the ancient Persian equivalent of John and Christina. At worst, the Purim story is a Judaicized version of a Babylonian folk tale about the gods.

Also of interest is that Marduk was a warrior god and the patron god of soldiers. Soldiers were often referred to as the servants of Marduk, which may be the ultimate source of the medrash that Mordechai had been a soldier in the Persian army.