Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Bas Melech Dress

Kol kevudah bas melech pnimia is quoted ad nauseum to girls and women, usually as part of "inspirational" speeches and projects encouraging them to cover themselves up, to not stand out, to not afflict men with their lascivious presence. They are told theat their golory is on the inside, and so it doesn't matter what they wear. They certainly shouldn't wear anything flashy that might attract attention. The second half of the pasuk, Mimishbi'tzos zahav livusha, is ignored.

Not anymore.

We bring you the Bas Melech dress. A beautiful dress in keeping with the second half of the pasuk. Now frum women can truly fulfill the words of pasuk. Expect to see them appearing at Beis Yaakov events, shuls, and simchos!

Monday, January 8, 2018

Hashkafa with a Heretic, Episode 3

This week I'm joined by Micheal Jacobson as we discuss the first three chapters of the Chovos HaLevavos, including how some people think they can be frummer than God and why the people who recommend seforim like the Chovos HaLevavos don't follow its advice.

I've created a dedicated channel for this series and have made the videos public. If you've subscribed (and even if you haven't), please subscribe to the new channel, and please share the series with anyone you think would be interested.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

A Friendly Frum Message To An OTDer.

The following is a line-by-line response to a message that was sent to someone who is OTD. The recipient asked for responses, and gave me permission to post it. The message is in italics, followed by my responses.

Dear [redacted],

As I said I would, I'm forwarding some links from xxxx. I hope that it's helpful. There may be other writing forums, as well. This is the one I've been involved with.

I also thank you for speaking with me so candidly. I'm glad that you felt comfortable enough to do so, and I encourage you to feel free to be in touch at your discretion.

I've been thinking a lot about our (unexpected) conversation. You have many questions, and I'm unclear about whether you really want any answers / solutions to your questions or not. Perhaps you just prefer to be left to the life you (seem to) have chosen for yourself.

So right at the start, we have the old, "You're questions are really answers." As though the only reason anyone would question the obvious truth of Yiddishkeit is because they're looking for excuses to throw off the ol hatorah and wallow in their taivos. And we have a delegitimatizing of the recipient's choices, with "seem to" in parentheses. As though they didn't really choose it, but were dragged there by forces (taivos - it's always taivos) beyond their control.

As you can imagine, it's disconcerting to watch someone you care about making choices that you'd feel are harmful. Let's say you noticed that someone dear to you had inherited a significant number of stocks, now s/he has to invest some effort to maintain this inheritance -paying brokers, flying to locations to do due diligence to assess the value of the stock, filing yearly income tax etc.; and now holds stocks that have not yet yielded (obvious) dividends. You are aware that the companies in which she holds stocks are developing their product, starting to make sales, but it hasn't yet translated into profits. How would you advise this friend? S/he is ready to throw the stocks out, after all, there's been no income commensurate to the hassle of keeping the stocks. Wouldn't you tell that friend to hold on, s/he's stands to earn a fortune. S/he's losing patience, s/he doesn't see the value in these old artifacts. But you know, once she gets rid of the stocks, if they bring in anywhere near what they potentially could, she'd kick herself big time at letting the opportunity slip through her fingers.

Here's an analogy trying to show that rejecting something because it doesn't have an immediate reward is foolish and shortsighted. The stocks are Yiddishkeit, the due diligence is the mitzvos, and the OTD person is the heir. I suppose the eventual payoff of the stocks is olam haboh.  The problem with this analogy, like all analogies from the known to the unknowable, is that we know stocks exist, and we have a general idea of how the market works. We know that stocks often do pay out, and that companies often take time to become established,  If somone really had information showing that the companies would be turning large profits in the future, he could share that information with the heir and convince them to hold on to the stocks. None of those things are true of Yiddishkeit. We can't know whether olam haboh exists, we don't know if keeping mitzvos ever pays off or, if they do, what kind of payoff we can expect or in what timeframe, and there is no information that can be provided that can reasonably prove that keeping mitzvos is a sound investment. The analogy fails on every point.

Also, the analogy reminds me of this:

[Redacted], you are smart, inquisitive and exploring – and you're also limited. (Aren't we all?) You're too young and inexperienced to come to hard and fast conclusions of difficult existential and spiritual matters. For everything you now know, there are exponential amounts that you don't yet know.

Sure, we're all limited. But recognizing that our limitations prevent us from coming to sure conclusions isn't an excuse to make stuff up. Why should suspending judgment, as the message writer suggests, equal being frum? It's at least as reasonable to suspend judgment and not be frum, pending further exploration of the issues. Frumkeit is not the default, "I don't know" is the default.

Why are you willing to believe so strongly in science? Do you explore and verify every study and experiment? Do you question the scientists who fill journals with their studies to clarify that they are not distorting the facts or skewing the results?

Of course not. Who does, or could? But it's reasonable to trust science, because, in principle, any of us could do the work. It's not mysterious or unknowable. And because science works! The message sender trusts science in every aspect of their daily lives, from when they check the weather in the morning, to the car they use to get to work, the bridges they drive over, the GPS they use to guide them, the medications they take, on and on and on. They literally trust science with their lives. It's only when scientific findings call tenets of their religion into question that they become skeptical, and ask questions like, "Do you verify it yourself? How do you know the scientists aren't lying?"

Are you accounting for the countless times they make an about-face saying the opposite today of what they said yesterday?

No. Just, really, no. Unless we're talking about modern rejection of ancient models of the world, an "about-face" is very rare. What does happen is that models are refined as more discoveries are made and more information becomes available. Putting down a new floor in a house, or even moving a wall, is not the same as turning the whole building around or knocking it down and building a new one.

Why do you relate to science with blind faith, since that's exactly what you're doing when you are quick to agree to everything they posit without being capable or trained to investigate their conclusions and verify their accuracy.

"Faith" is belief despite a lack of evidence. It's belief that ignores the probabilities. Believing in an unseen, unknowable God requires faith. Trusting experts and a system of learning about the world that has a proven track record is not faith. They're usually right, so they're probably right about "this" (whatever "this" happens to be), too.

And if you're willing to have blind-faith in the conclusions of mortal, often self-serving men and women – why should one spurn the individuals who exhibit faith in an Omnipotent G-d, and believe in upholding His statutes?

Like I just said, it's not blind faith to trust a proven system. But leaving that aside, this is again an analogy from the known to the unknowable. We know that scientists exist and that their findings usually reflect reality. We don't know that God exists, nor do we know that the beliefs of those who have faith in Him  reflect reality.

If you are suggesting that logic rules, then I fail to understand the logic in choosing science over the Creator who fashioned all the laws of nature which scientists claim to observe in the first place.

I get the impression that the message writer is using "logic" to mean, "makes sense." Logic is not just that which makes sense, logic is rules for reasoning that must be true, in the same way that one plus one must equal two. Be that as it may:

1.  if God is real, and He created the world and gave us the Torah, then if the Torah doesn't match reality, God lied to us. If the truth is in nature, then God lied to us when He said something different in the Torah. And if the truth is in the Torah, then God lied to us when He made nature in such a way that it fools us into believing untruths. Why would we trust such a Being?

2. We live in this world, it is the only reality we have access to, and what we can know about it affects our lives. Science has proven it's success at informing us about the world and improving our lives, while religion has not. Therefore it is reasonable to trust science over the word of God.

3. "Claim" to observe? Again, the unwarranted, selective skepticism of science only when it contradicts what they believe to be the message of the Creator.

Interestingly, there were a number of rishonim who held the opposite of the message writer. They held that we take the Torah as literally true unless it is contradicted by what we see in the world, in which case the Torah must be interpreted figuratively. The message writer seems to hold that we always take the Torah as literally true, and when it is contradicted by what we see in the world - well, who are you going to believe, me, or your lying eyes?

And, is this an intellectual or emotional argument?

Does it matter? Arguments stand or fall on their merits, the motivations of the person presenting the argument notwithstanding. And anyway, what's wrong with emotions? People are not frum for purely intellectual reasons. Far from it. The frum world discourages philosophical inquiry, and hashkafa is superficial, made up of bad arguments and inspirational fluff, not serious theology. If people can be frum for emotional reasons, why is it illegitimate for someone to stop being frum for emotional reasons?

And lets not forget how insulting this question is. It's asking, "You think you're being rational, but aren't you really stupidly being swept along by your emotions?" You weak-willed, broken, taiva-ridden fool, you.

[Redacted], your choices are not inconsequential- they really matter. They matter obviously to yourself, and also to your future spouse, children, bs"D, to your community, and to your nation.

Exactly, choices matter. Like choosing to remain frum. That choice severely limits the range of marriage partners, the education of children, and the potential communities one can belong to. Choosing to be frum is as legitimate a choice as any other, but it's not the default.

Is it important to you that your future generations remain Jewish?

What if it's not? What if it is, but there are other considerations that are also important, and a reasonable balance has to be found? What if it's of great importance, but of no importance whether they're frum?

You're going to have to make choices, not just now, but continually as your life unfolds. May you find the inner strength, wisdom, resources and messengers to help you reach conclusions which will bring you genuine and eternal satisfaction and serenity.

It's a nice sentiment, but eternal? Is this a veiled threat? "You had better stay frum, because only being frum guarantees your descendants will be Jewish (except that it doesn't, or there could be no OTD people who marry non-Jews), and if they aren't, you're going to look down from Heaven and be bothered by the dire consequences of your choices." There's nothing like guilt trips and threats about the unknowable afterlife to keep a person frum.

Your friend,


Sunday, December 31, 2017

Hashkafa with a Heretic, Episode 2

I learned today that editing audio is time-consuming. There's less reading and more commentary in this episode. The episode covers the second half of the introduction to the Chovos HaLevavos, in which the author tells us that he wasn't sure that a humble man like himself was qualified to write a book on such lofty matters, and that if you disagree with anything he says, it's because you're lazy and stupid.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Aristotelian Avreichem?

From The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, from his discussion of Aristotle's Politics:

"The book… ends with a discussion of education. Education, of course, is only for children who are going to be citizens. Slaves may be taught useful arts, such as cooking, but these are no part of education. …Children should learn what is useful to them, but not vulgarizing. For instance, they should not be taught any skill that deforms the body, or that would enable them to earn money. …They must of course learn to read and write, in spite of the usefulness of these arts, but the purpose of education is virtue, not usefulness."

This sounds a lot like the kollel society of the yeshivish world. "Useful arts" are looked down on, working for money is vulgar, and the point of study is virtue, not for practical ends. Is this a coincidence, or do kollel communities represent a reflection of Aristotelian virtues, filtered through kisvei kodesh influenced by Aristotle's writings?

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Hashkafa with a Heretic, Episode 1

I'm trying something new. This post is the first in what I hope will become a series of audio episodes in which I (and possibly guests in the future) read through classic hashkafa seforim and share my thoughts. This project was inspired by the conversation Luzer and Ari (two of the stars of One of Us) had with a chassidish couple about a month ago. The woman they were talking with mentioned that she had also had questions as a teenager, and had learned through Chovos HeLevavos. She seemed to imply that it had answered her questions. I've never gone through Chovos HeLevavos straight through, so I figured, let's give it a try. I don't want to spend too much time on this project, so I'm doing this off-the-cuff, in one recording session straight through, half an hour to an hour a week.  Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Book Summary

I finally finished the first phase of writing my book! I've finished collecting and organizing my notes. The notes are culled from books, articles, and blog posts I've read, and from things I've written. I'm constantly finding new articles, and there's probably ten books on my current reading list that are relevant to the book I'm writing, but I have to stop collecting notes and start writing at some point. If I wait until I collect every piece of relevant writing, it will never end. The (semi-) final page count for my notes is 1,236 pages, among which is enough information to fill out all of the points I want to address in the book.

The following is a summary of the book as it is now laid out:

Apikorsis!: Reasonable Doubts Regarding Orthodox Judaism, Religion, and God.

Part One: Introduction
                Chapter 1: Why I Wrote This Book
The book is, first and foremost, an answer to the canard that people leave Orthodoxy because they are weak-willed hedonistic cretins who can't control their taivos and throw off the ol hatorah to excuse their wallowing in the fleshly pleasures of the world. It shows, at length, that there are kashas that aren't terutzim, that it is reasonable to conclude that Orthodoxy is incorrect, and that the many, many intellectual problems with frumkeit aren't just weak excuses.
Part Two: Thinking About Religion
                Chapter 2: Heresy
Truth and the idea of apikorsis are incompatible. If something is true, then it is, and if it's not, nothing is gained by making it a sin to think it. Apikorsis is only a useful idea if it's more important to hold ideologically correct ideas than it is to hold true ideas. Labeling dissenting ideas "heresy" is an attempt to protect beliefs through ignorance and to bully dissenters into silence.
                Chapter 3: Epistemology
Before we can determine if Orthodoxy is the truth, we have to establish how we know what the truth is. This chapter contrasts revealed religious epistemology, where there are pre-determined conclusions for which evidence is collected, and the method (ideally) used in science and academia, where evidence is collected first and conclusions drawn from what is found.
                Chapter 4: Critical thinking, Cognitive Biases, and Logical Fallacies
This chapter explores formal and informal logic, common mistakes in thinking, probability, and how to evaluate the truth of a claim.
Part Two: Orthodox Judaism
                Chapter 5: Orthodoxy's Authenticity
Orthodoxy claims that it is the only correct form of Judaism, essentially unchanged since the Torah was given on Har Sinia and uninfluenced by the surrounding culture. This chapter shows that every one of those claims is not true. There have been many forms of Judaism over the millennia, none of which can be said to be more legitimate than any other; many aspects of Orthodox Judaism would be unrecognizable to Jews of the past; and Judaism has always been and continues to be a syncretistic religion that shares ideas with the cultures in which it finds itself. Orthodoxy as it is now is the most similar of the modern forms of Judaism to what traditional Judaism was just before the modern era, but like the other streams of modern Rabbinic Judaism, it has its origins as a reaction to modernity.
                Chapter 6: Orthodoxy's Peculiarities
Orthodoxy has some idiosyncratic  ideas, both sociological and metaphysical. Among these are the parochialism of the frum world, in which it imagines it is better than the rest of society and that everyone else is obsessed with what frum people do; the slide-to-the-right and the escalating adoption of restrictive chumros; the doctrine of Daas Torah; and the strange idea that every generation is contemptible compared its predecessors.
                Chapter 7: The Women's Section
This chapter addresses the role of women in Orthodoxy. It includes issues such as women's secondary place in halacha and frum society, the misogyny that is woven through halacha, and the hypocritical objectification of women under the banner of tznius, which claims to change the focus from a woman's sexuality to her inner attributes while focusing exclusively on how well she hides her sexuality.
                Chapter 8: Arguments for Orthodoxy
My mother's uncle's cousin's stepdaughter had an amazing thing happen to her. Mamish a nes! That proves Orthodoxy is true! And surely all the great rabbonim of the past and the gedolim of today are smarter than we are, and they all believed! Shouldn't we rely on them, and accept that Orthodoxy is true? No, we shouldn't, because how smart someone is has little to do with how likely they are to be right. And people of every religion have miracle stories, most if not all the result of the way the person experiencing them frames the world and misunderstands probability. Nor do the positive attributes of the frum community or its demographic success give us good reason to think that frumkeit is the truth.
Part Three: Judaism
                Chapter 9: The Kuzari Proof
The Kuzari is often *the* proof people rely on to show that Judaism is true. This chapter lays out the premises of the Kuzari Proof and shows in detail why each one is mistaken. If any of the Kuzari's premises are wrong, then the Proof is invalid. As it turns out, every one of the premises is wrong, and the Kuzari is useless.
                Chapter 10: Factual Inaccuracies in Our Foundational Texts
This chapter discusses some of the inaccuracies in Tanach and the Talmud, from the incorrect order of Creation to the gemara's acceptance of spontaneous generation to mistaken ideas about  how babies are made, and much more. It also addresses the "explanations" given by traditionalists, from essentially claiming the world was created five minutes ago to shunting all the inconvenient claims off into an unknowable inaccessible "higher" reality where these mistakes are all really the truth.
                Chapter 11: Torah Shebichsav (TSBK) and Modern Biblical Scholarship
In the frum world, Biblical Criticism is usually dismissed as a silly attempt at undermining the truth of the Torah. If only the Bible Critics could read the meforshim, they would understand that Torah is emes! This chapter explains that academics can and do read the meforshim, and shows why the academics come to the conclusion that the Torah is a composite work. It discusses some of the many examples of Sumerian and Egyptian mythology in the Torah, and traces the development of Tanach from oral Israelite myths to the seventh-century BCE redaction of the Torah to the canonization of the Masoretic text.
                Chapter 12: The Development of Torah Shebaal Peh (TSBP)
I've heard Orthodox opinions on the divinity of TSBP that range from an insistence that every sefer ever written was given to Moshe on Har Sinai to that Moshe was only given a set of rules for interpreting the written Torah. This chapter traces the development of the concept of an authoritative Oral Tradition and the development of the tradition itself.
                Chapter 13: The Historical Development of Judaism in the Ancient World
No one really knows what the origins of the Jewish people are. This chapter begins with plausible speculation about Jewish origins in the Canaanite highlands, and moves from there onto firmer ground with a discussion of the development of Jewish monotheism and the impact of galus Bavel and Judaism's exposure to Zoroastrianism.
                Chapter 14: Proofs for Judaism
The most common proof for Judaism, after the Kuzari Proof, is the Argument from Jewish Survival. This chapter opens with a discussion of Jewish survival and the mundane, if unusual, conditions that allowed Jews to survive for millennia as a distinct people. This chapter also addresses other popular arguments for Judaism, such as Bible codes, the supposedly humanly impossible complexity of the Talmud, and, for a good dose of Jewish guilt, the Argument from Jewish Martyrs.
                Chapter 15: Question From Other Religions
This is perhaps the greatest argument against emunah peshutah. There are people all over the world who sincerely hold different religious beliefs. Often, the beliefs of different groups are mutually exclusive, which means that at least some of these people must be wrong. What are the odds that we happened to be born into the one religion that got it all right?
Part  Four: God
                Chapter 16: What is "God?"
Before we can discuss whether or not there's sufficient reason to think that God exists, we have to figure out what we mean by "God." This chapter discusses various conceptions of God, including polytheistic ideas, the God of Tanach, and currently acceptable frum ideas of what God is. It also discusses where the idea of God might have come from if He doesn't exist, and how we might go about determining if there's reason to think that He does.
                Chapter 17: Morality and the Problem of Evil, or The Most Common Argument Against God's      Existence
One of the common arguments for God is that if there is no God, there is no objective morality, and so God must exist. Of course, it could be that there is no God and there is no objective morality, however much we may want morality to be objective.  Nor can God have anything to do with an objective morality, something we've known since Plato. From the Argument from Morality, we move to the Problem of Evil, which asks how there can be evil in the world if God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent. Various theodicies are discussed which try to reconcile the existence of evil with a tri-omni God. One of the most common theodicy is that evil is necessary for us to have free will, and we look at whether we actually have free will in this deterministic universe of ours. Finally, we look at the empirical evidence. Was the world more moral in the past, when religion was taken for granted, and has morality been declining along with the decline of the centrality of religion in society, as religious demagogues often claim?
                Chapter 18: The Argument From Design, or The Most Common Argument For God's Existence
Rashi cribbed from Aquinas when he said that just as a house points to its builder, so the world points to a Creator. The complexity of the universe and of life, and the fine-tuning of the world to allow for life, is the most  common argument for the existence of God. This chapter explains why complexity doesn't in itself point to a Creator, and gives an overview of evolution as an alternative explanation for how the complexity of life arose.
                Chapter 19: Other Arguments for God
This chapter covers many of the arguments for God's existence, among them  the argument that the universe had to have a cause, and that cause is God; that there are many things we don't understand, and God is the explanation for those things; the argument that there are many immaterial concepts, like love, that we accept are real, and so we should also accept that God is real; and what for many people is the most convincing reason to believe in God, personal experiences that leave them sure that they know God is real.
Part Five: The Baby and the Bathwater
                Chapter 20: Pragmatic Religion
Even if God isn't real and religion isn't true, religion provides all sorts of benefits. And anyway, shouldn't we be frum, just in case it turns out that it's all true after all? No. The answer is no. It's true that religion does all sorts of useful things, but pretty much all of those things can be accomplished without religion, and religion has too many costs to justify pretending it's true in order to keep its benefits.
                Chapter 21: Going OTD
This chapter explores the various reasons why people leave the frum community, what they experience when leaving, and what the frum community tells itself about those who leave.
So after all this, is there anything that could make me believe in frumkeit again? And is there any value in being Jewish? I think the answer to first question is it's possible, but incredibly unlikely. The answer to the second question is that I can only speak for myself, but I don't think that being Jewish loses its value as an identity without the belief in Judaism. And I think that the overwhelming majority of Jewish people would agree with me.

These are some other ideas for a cover I've been playing with: