Sunday, December 18, 2011

We’re Too Late

Last night I was sitting in my living room, trying out the new recliner I just bought (very comfortable!) and reading “The Hebrew Goddess” by Raphael Patai when I had an awful realization: the fanatics already won! Those of us who bemoan the slide-to-the-right are thousands of years too late.

When I was a kid in school learning Navi the impression I always got was that the people the neviim denounced as evil idol worshipers were the exception, aberrations from the normative worship of Hashem in the Beis Hamikdash. Unfortunately, these few had strayed, and even more unfortunately, at times the idol worshipers were a significant portion of the Bnei Yisroel, but most people most of the time were exemplars of Jewish faith, pious people who we would be happy to welcome into our communities.

Is seems that this impression, like so many others, is wrong. The “The Hebrew Goddess” contends that the majority of the people the majority of the time worshipped “Yaweh and his Asherah,” and often other gods as well. Asherah, the Canaanite mother goddess who is the villainess of Talmudic polemics, was worshipped by virtually everyone as Hashem’s wife. Statues of her, referred to as “Asherahs,” were everywhere: small clay figurines in people’s homes, large pillar-like wooden statues in public spaces on baamos (high places) and under trees, and most shocking of all, in nearly permanent residence in the Beis HaMikdash. The author points out that:

“We find that the worship of Asherah, which had been popular among the Hebrew tribes for three centuries, was introduced into the Jerusalem temple by King Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, in or about 928 BCE. Her statue was worshipped in the Temple for 35 years, until King Asa removed it in 893 BCE. It was restored to the Temple by King Josh in 825 BCE, and remained there for a full century, until King Hezekiah removed it in 725 BCE. After an absence of 27 years, however, Asherah was back again in the Temple: this time it was King Manasseh who replaced her in 698 BCE. She remained in the Temple for 78 years, until the great reformier King Joshiah removed her in 620 BCE. Upon Joshiah’s death eleven years later (609 BCE) she was again brought back into the Temple, where she remained until its destruction 23 years later, in 586 BCE. Thus it appears that, of the 370 years during which the Solomnic Temple stood ion Jerusalem, for no less than 236 years (or almost two-thirds of the time) the statue of Asherah was present in the Temple, and her worship was part of the legitimate religion approved and led by the king, the court, and the priesthood and opposed by only a few prophetic voices crying out against it at relatively long intervals.”

Entire generations lived and died while Asherah was in residence in the Beis Hamikdash. They saw her when they made their pilgrimages during the shalosh regalim. She was served by the kohanim, the rites passed from father to son to grandson without interruption. Worship of the divine couple WAS normative Judaism; the strict monotheism of the neviim was the aberration. Those calling for the removal of Asherah must have been regarded as fanatics, the lunatic religious fringe. Yet they won.

Imagine what it must have been like in those periods when the king was one of the fanatics. Royal troops tore down the sacred Asherah in the Beis Hamikdash, perhaps over the protests of the kohanim. Soldiers ranged the countryside, desecrating sanctuaries set up with local donations and destroying public places of worship. They raided people’s homes and seized Asherah figurines that may have been in the family for several generations. Far from the joyful return to pure Judaism that is portrayed in Nach, it was a time of religious persecution.

Nor did the people easily come to agree with the fanatics. Again and again, the Asherahs were destroyed by purist kings only to quickly spread again once the persecution of Asherah worship was lifted – and be destroyed yet again when another fanatical king came to power.

From the point of view of the average First-Temple-Era Jew, kings like Chezkiah and Yoshiyahu weren’t tzaddikim, but instead played the same role as the yevanim do in the Chanukah story: that of religious persecutor and villain. Just as the yevanim outlawed Jewish religious rituals and practices, so too these kings outlawed what were traditional religious rituals and practices for the majority of Jews. Just as the yevanim desecrated the Beis Hamikdash, these kings desecrated the temples of popular gods and goddesses, and destroyed the sacred objects dedicated to Asherah and Baal that were found within the Beis Hamikdash.

This was just the beginning. As the centuries have passed, practices have come and gone, but the trend has always been towards more restrictive, more layers of interpretation and of halachah, more liturgy, more ritual. Men and women, who once mingled in the courts of the Beis Hamikdash and may have engaged in ecstatic orgies inspired by viewing the erotic statue of the keruvim, were separated and the women eventually removed to balconies. Feast days became fast days, and ascetic customs once observed only by the especially pious became binding on everyone.

We bemoan the creeping chumras that we see now, but these are only the latest symptoms of this long trend. We are much too late. The fanatics already won.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Pragmatic Morality

One of the many useful things that religion does is provide a framework for morality. If God has told us what is moral, then the sincere religious person can rest easy knowing that by following his religion’s dictates he is doing what is right.

Without religion it’s more difficult to define morality and to decide whether something is right or wrong. At that, without a divine mandate, the entire enterprise of determining what is moral is called into question. Why does is matter is something is moral? After all, what is considered “good” or “bad” is largely determined by a combination of social norms and biological instincts. Neither of those are important in a written-in-the-sky kind of way, so who cares whether something is moral or not! That the norms of my society or my instincts tell me that I shouldn’t do something is not in itself a reason not to do it.

I think both problems, creating a moral code and a reason to keep it, can be addressed by adopting a pragmatic approach. And I think that a good starting point for a pragmatic morality is the Golden Rule. As Hillel phrased it: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”

This is entirely pragmatic. If everyone follows the Rule, then we will all be treated well by everyone else – and that also provides the reason for behaving morally. I must behave morally because if I don’t, the system breaks down. It may be in my best interests at the moment, to, say, steal something from the grocery. If I do, though, then my fellows hano longer have motivation to treat me well – since they are treating me well in order that I treat them well – and the system breaks down. Inevitably, someone will steal from me – something that I don’t want to happen. Therefore I refrain from stealing from the grocery store in order to maintain the universal agreement that we all treat each other well.

The Golden Rule provides a simple, though not easy, basis for judging if an action is moral. If I were the person my action is affecting – not if I was in his place, but if I was him, with his likes and dislikes, his personality, his history, etc. – would I want to be treated that way? If yes the action is moral, if no then the action is immoral.

Of course, as with any moral system, there are gray areas. For example, giving a child a shot. The child certainly doesn’t want to be stuck with a needle, but it is in his best interest. Perhaps we could say that, if he knew that it was in his best interest, he would want it – except that forcing someone against their wish to do what we judge to be in their best interest is a dangerous road to go down. This needs more thought.

There is also the problem of bringing criminals to justice. A criminal who recognizes that what he did is wrong is not much of an issue. We look at it from his perspective, and try to treat him as we would want to be treated if we were caught doing something wrong. If I did something wrong, I would like understanding and compassion, but I recognize that there must be immediate consequences to deter people for whom the long-view of keeping things pleasant for everyone isn’t enough to keep them from breaking the moral code and ruining things for everyone else.

But what about someone who believes that what he did is right? I certainly wouldn’t want to be punished for something that I thought was the right thing to do. Not that I would want to be punished for something that I agree was the wrong thing, but there at least I can recognize the necessity of the punishment and acquiesce.  And what about someone who ascribes to a different moral system? We cannot subject him to the consequences of the Golden Rule moral system – after all, we would not want to subjected to consequences under the rules of his moral system. This also needs more thought.

These are some thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head for a while. A fully-developed moral system is beyond the scope of a single blog post, and likely beyond my amateur attempts at philosophy. I kind of like this idea, though. Any thoughts on how to make it more coherent?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Choosing Biblical Friends

Who would you rather hang out with, the great tzaddik Dovid HaMelech or Eisav HaRasha?

Let’s compare them:

Dovid was a shepherd. Eisav was a hunter. Both involve killing animals, but shepherding involves caring for the animals, which is traditionally considered noble.

According to the medrash, Eisav married idol-worshipers. Not ideal, perhaps, but it’s not like he had real options. Even his brother Yaakov’s father-in-law was an idol worshiper, and at least one of his wives believed in idols enough to steal her father’s in order to rob him of their powers.

David married the king’s daughter, all well and good. Later, though, he notices a hot girl bathing and arranges for her husband to be killed so that he can have her.

Fealty to father-figure

Eisav was devoted to his father, and often brought him food. David deposed his father-inlaw Shaul after committing treason and fighting for years alongside the Philistines, the Israelites’ mortal enemy.


Eisav sells his birthright for a bowl of soup. He didn’t value it much, but even so, this seems rash. Still, it was Eisav’s to sell, and he didn’t actually do anything wrong. David dances before the aron and in his enthusiasm gives the crowd a good look at his privates – which both violates the halachos of tznius and isn’t appropriate behavior from anyone, let alone the king.

According to Rashi, Eisav killed Nimrod, the evil king who tried to barbeque his grandfather. David killed Goliath, a menacing enemy warrior, but a man about whom we otherwise know nothing. It’s entirely possible that Goliath was a better person than Nimrod. Yet for killing Nimrod, Eisav is denounced as a murderer, while for killing Goliath, David is praised as a hero.

Family Relationships
Eisav wants to kill Yaakov after the brashos are stolen from him, but eventually forgives his brother. Dovid son goes to war against him, and ends up dead.

Neither of these figures are paragons of virtue, but between the two of them, I’d rather hang out with the guy who has a good marriage and isn’t chasing other people’s wives, who’s good to his father, and who won’t inadvertently expose himself when he gets excited.

You know, like this.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Amateur Scholarship?

Last week an acquaintance of mine, a yungerman at the local kollel, gave me a couple of pamphlets he had written, one on tznius and one on ahavas Hashem. He said that each was the result of several month’s work. I read them over Shabbos. If I had to sum up my impression in one word, it would be “amateur.”

I don’t know exactly where this person ranks on the “talmin chachom” scale, but he’s been in yeshiva for many years, gives shiurim… were he in a secular university, he’d have to be at the very least a PhD candidate. Yet the content of the pamphlets was a string of assertions and logical leaps. Granted, I think that the intended audience is high-schoolers, so I wasn’t expecting sophisticated arguments. On the other hand, I also wasn’t expecting the bulk of the content to rely on nebulous, undefined concepts and non-sequiturs.

I can only hope that these works are not representative of the general quality of “learning” in kollelim.

So now I have a decision to make. My instinct is to fisk the pamphlets and point out to him where he’s wrong.* If nothing else, it would lead to some interesting conversations. On the other hand, he told me that the pamphlets were “well received.” Is some interesting conversation worth criticizing his work? Not that I’m anybody who’s opinion he needs to be concerned with, but having your work criticized is never pleasant, no matter what the source.

*I wouldn’t presume to try to show that he’s halchicly wrong, or that other sources argue with his conclusions. I have no doubt that his command of the material is far better than my own. What I would point out is where the logic fails (or is non-existent) and where he is factually wrong.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Happy Birthday to Me…

Well, it’s official. I’m a grown-up.

I have an incredible wife, adorable kids, a house, two cars, and a filing cabinet full of bills. I have a graduate degree (which I don’t get much use out of) and a fledgling business. I’ve moved away from the city of my childhood, to a community with norms and hashkafos I can tolerate, if not always agree with, made up of individuals I can relate to, and in time, perhaps become friends with. I have a nearly developed philosophy of life and have a fairly good idea of my competencies and weaknesses. My wife and I are self-reliant, and our only debt is the mortgage on the house.

None of that has anything to do with me being a grown-up. Sadly, my youth is a victim of man’s eternal enemy: time. I’m turning thirty.

When I was a kid, it seemed that adults knew everything. I was in my mid-teens when I had the realization that my parents were just people, like everyone else. I was in my mid-twenties when I realized that when they had been in their mid-twenties, when I was a little kid, they hadn’t had a clue. And neither did anyone else.

Somehow, it still seems that everyone knows more than I do. As if there was some memo that went around to everyone explaining how the world is supposed to work, and I wasn’t on the recipient list. I recently realized that I come across the same way to other people, even though I KNOW I know barely anything.

Take the blogosphere, for example. I read what other people write, and it seems like nearly everyone knows more about everything than I do. Then I read my own posts or comments, and I realize that I also sound like I know what I’m talking about. Of course, when I read my own comments I know that the assertive tone I have is an artifact of my writing style, that I’m always checking facts that I think I remember before posting, and that I occasionally have posted comments that I later realize were factually wrong.

I’m just a little kid, playing at being a grown-up. And I suspect that so is everyone else.

I’m getting old. The world my kids live in is so different than the one I grew up in.

I remember climbing up on a kitchen chair to reach the rotary phone on the kitchen wall. When we got a cordless phone, it was a big deal. It had a huge metal antenna on the base and a chunky plastic-encased antenna on the handset. My daughters have a toy cell phone that sings the ABCs. I remember when car phones and beepers were luxury items.

At that, it was only a few years ago that I saw a GPS for the first time, in a friend’s high-end car.

I grew up watching Sesame Street on a black-and-white TV in the kitchen, pre-Elmo. My older daughter went through an Elmo-obsessed stage, and has two singing-and-dancing Elmos, one talking Elmo, and a big stuffed Elmo doll.

My parents got their first computer, a 486 with a 500MB hard drive, when I was twelve. When I was in high school I taught myself how to use DOS. The guy in my class who was a computer geek had a computer in the dorm that ran on two five-and-a-half inch floppy drives, a bit of RAM, and had a monochrome CRT monitor. I got an internet connection in ’99. My kids learned how to use a mouse and keyboard almost before they could talk, and routinely play games online.

Ah. I have to go build a rocking chair so I can sit on my front porch and yell at the kids to keep off my lawn.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

God the Programmer

Yesterday as I was walking my daughter home from school, my mind wandered and I found myself thinking about the mabul. Specifically, about how unfair it was for Hashem to punish everyone with death. After all, I reasoned to myself, if the product is defective, it’s the fault of the designer! If a computer programmer wrote a program which failed to function properly, it wouldn’t be reasonable to blame the program. Obviously, it’s the programmer’s fault. He messed up somewhere in the code, and he needs to fix it, not yell at his computer.

Then I had an epiphany. Hashem IS a programmer. And the mabul wasn’t a punishment. It was God saving the bits of the program that worked properly and deleting the faulty code so that He could try to fix the program.

Unfortunately, God isn’t a very good programmer.

With this perspective, so much makes sense.

God created the Universe (the program): In the beginning, God created the program. And the page was empty, blankness was on the monitor, and God’s fingers were hovering over the keyboard. And God typed, “Let there be light” and there was light. God saw that the code for simulating light effects was good, and He separated the light effects from the shadow effects. God called the light program “day” and the shadow program “night.” By then it was evening, and He powered down His computer until the morning – this was the first day.

God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omni-benevolent (more or less): He knows everything about the program and can see all of the results of the program (but doesn’t quite know why it’s not working properly); He can change the program as He wishes (but He’s not a very good programmer, so his code often doesn’t do quite what He wants it to); and He wants the ultimate good for the program, that is, for it to work properly (but individual pieces of the program are unimportant in themselves). He cares about and investigates the behavior of each part of the program, and is constantly involved in adjusting it.

There is a wonderful theodicy: Bad things generally are a result of bugs in the program. The plane crashes because of a bug. The little girl emerges from the wreckage without a scratch because God was furiously coding to try to fix the bug.

Other gods are software pirates who try to take credit for the program. This understandably upsets God.

And so on…

Monday, September 19, 2011

Video Proves Afterlife!

Yeah, right. If only.

A few days ago one of my friends posted a link on Facebook to this video.

In the video Rabbi Mizrachi claims that he will provide scientific proof of the existence of the afterlife. Always hopeful, I watched it. I didn’t bother watching the rest of the series. After rambling a bit and citing Torah sources, R’ Mizrachi outlines his five scientific proofs for the afterlife. They are:

1) Out-of-body experiences
2) Séances
3) Reincarnation
4) Hypnotic regression causing people to speak in languages they don’t understand
5) Two people inhabiting one body, by which I assume he means split-personality disorder.

The list is laughable. Even his proof from the Torah that there is an afterlife is hardly conclusive. He says that the Torah forbids us to communicate with the dead. This, he claims, proves that it is possible to speak to the dead, which in turn proves that there must be some sort of afterlife.

Unfortunately for him, this is not necessarily so. Many things in the Torah are polemics against idolatry. Communicating with the dead was common practice in many idolatrous cults of the Ancient Near East. The prohibition is as likely meant to prevent Jewish people from engaging in this idolatrous practice of their neighbors (despite it having no efficacy) as it is meant to prevent actual communication with the dead.

I had never heard of R’ Mizrachi, and at first I figured he was just some local rav who had decided to give a hashkafa lecture and had it filmed. But no, it turns out that he has his own kiruv organization, with its own website with many lectures purporting to PROVE that Judaism is right scientifically and theologically.

What little I’ve seen of his lectures show that it’s not even worth debunking. I mean, going through it might be fun, and picking stuff like this apart is good for my ego, but there’s no real accomplishment in picking such low-hanging fruit. And yet, Rabbi Mizrachi’s bio claims that one of his videos was distributed to more than 200,000 people, he’s given 4,000 lectures, and his Facebook page has 56,000 friends and over 1,000,000 hits a month. In the tiny frum world, those are celebrity stats.

Bad science and terrible “proofs” from kiruv organizations is hardly news. Being confronted by something like this video, though, brings home just how bad it can be and highlights that sad state of popular Orthodox theology.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Country Music

I’ve started listening to music on the radio recently (over the last few months), and it’s been a new experience for me. As I wrote here, growing up I only listened to Jewish Music. Even when I started listening to non-Jewish music in my early twenties, it was mostly older songs. Recognizing the music I hear from too-loud car stereos, in stores, or even what was played during the 4th of July fireworks show is a strange new experience.

I mostly listen to country music, which I discovered that I liked way back when I was dating my wife and would put the radio on during the long drive from my house to hers. While there are a fair number of songs about pickup trucks (which I don’t own) and beer (which I don’t like), many songs are about family and living life. I identify with a lot of these songs in a way I never did with pasukim put to music.

For instance, there’s this song about a guy who takes his daughter fishing and talks about how he’s building memories with her. I often think about how my kids will remember their childhoods, and me, when they’re adults. Songs like this speak to me.

There’s this one, about a guy who works hard to support his family.

And this one, about a guy who’s applying for a job so he can take care of his kids.

There are songs about being a parent, like this one about a woman dealing with her daughters being typical teenagers, and which makes me think about what my two daughters will be like in a few years.

And songs about missing family who have passed away, like this one about a guy who misses his grandfather and wishes he could take his family on a day trip to Heaven so his kids could meet their great-grandfather.

There are also the raunchy songs my high-school rabbeim polemicized against, like this one, which is actually rather clever.

And this one, which of all songs is the one that my four-year-old daughter leant most of the lyrics to.

There are songs about small-town American culture, or at least the idealized version of it, which are remarkably similar to aspects of idealized frum culture. Like this song about a guy who goes out of his way to buy American to support ”his” people, just as many frum people will shop at frum businesses to help support their owners.

There are songs about 9/11 which are far better than the single sappy song I can think of that came out of the frum music industry.

There’s this one, which has a triumphant ring.

And then there’s this one, which can break your heart. My oldest is four, about the same age the girl in the song would have been in 2001. I heard it on the radio once, and I can’t bring myself to listen to it again. I’m not an overly sentimental guy, but anything to do with kids always gets to me. Especially now, when I have kids of my own. This song made me cry, something that no repetitive Hebrew song has ever done, however beautiful its melody may have been.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Babylonian names = Jewish insight?!

Babylonian Calendar

It’s that time of year again. It’s Ellul, and I’ve been bombarded with vertlach that darshan the name of the month to produce cute riffs on the theme of teshuva and closeness to Hashem. This is despite the undisputed (pagan) Babylonian origin of the names of the months of the Jewish calendar, and that most of the d’vrei torahs’ wordplays only work in Hebrew.

Now, I would have no complaints if these divrei torah were presented as clever mnemonic devices or inspirational quips meant merely to remind us of the significance of the month. Instead, they are presented with the unstated assumption that the intrinsic flavor of the time of year is reflected in the name of the month.

The last time I mentioned this phenomenon, I did a Google search for “Ellul” and found a Mesopotamian god named Enlil/Elil, whose name I assumed was the origin of “Ellul.” Since then I’ve learned a bit more about mythology and have done a bit more research into month-names, and it turns out I was wrong.

The names of the months on the Jewish calendar come from the Babylonian names by way of Akkadian. Akkadian was the common language of the Ancient Near East, and Babylonian was actually a variant of Akkadian. Akkadian was used in the ANE for some two thousand years, until it was replaced as the common language by Aramaic with the rise of the Persian Empire about three thousand years ago.

“Ellul” was originally “Ululu” in Babylonian and “Elulu” in Akkadian. It comes from a root meaning “harvest” and also refers to the “mission” of the reigning deity of the month, Ishtar. Ishtar was the Babylonian fertility goddess, and shared a similar-sounding name and near-identical story and powers with the Egyptian goddess Isis and the Semitic Astarte. So, using "Ellul" as a the basis for vertlach is not quite as damning as creating divrei torah directly from the name of a Mesopotamian god, but certainly it is a word that has nothing to do with repentance and closeness to God. “Ellul” is at best a straightforward name for the time of year – “harvest time” – and is at worst a reference to the role the Babylonian fertility goddess was believed to play in the annual agrarian cycle.

The other month names have similar origins:

Babylonian: Nisanu – First, refers both to the month as the first month of the year and to the presiding god, Bel.

The first week of this month was the Babylonian New Year’s celebration. This is speculation on my part, but it seems likely that this is where the idea of Nissan as the beginning of the year comes from. Pre-Babylonian exile, the months of the Jewish year were numbered rather than named, and the numbering started in the spring. Yet now Nissan is called the new year for the months, and Tishrei in the new year for the year. In the Babylonian calendar, Nissan is the beginning of the year and of the first half-year, and Tishrei was that beginning of the second half-year. That these months are both considered new years in the Jewish calendar is too much of a coincidence.

Bel, known as Baal in Israel, is not really a name but a title. It means “lord” and refers to Marduk, first amongst the gods in the Babylonian, and later Persian, pantheon. Bel Marduk has the distinction of being both the most vilified god in tanach and of being Mordechai HaTzadik’s namesake.

Babylonian: Āru / Ayaru - Bull or Herd, Prosperity. Presided over by Ea, the Babylonian name for the (earlier) Sumerian god Enki, the god of life. Originally the god of water, Enki is often depicted with the Tigris and Euphrates rivers flowing from his shoulders.

Babylonian: Simanu - Brick-making. Presided over by Sin, the god of the moon, after the conflation of the Semitic god Sin with the Sumerian god Nanna. Interestingly, the main centers of Sin worship were Ur and Haran, both cities which figure prominently in Avraham’s story: the first as his birthplace and the second as his long-time adopted home.

Babylonian: Dumuzu – Babylonian name of the god known in Hebrew as Tammuz. The only month to share its name with a god. Originally the god of vegetation and later of the sun, Tammuz must spend six months a year in the underworld, a mythical explanation for winter. According to the myth, his wife, Inanna, descended to the underworld to visit her sister, Ereshkigal. Once there, Inanna sat on her sister’s throne, and immediately became a corpse. To return to the world of the living, Inanna had to find someone to take her place in the underworld. Tammuz agreed to exchange himself for her, but had second thoughts and was hidden by his sister, Geshtinana. Demons were sent to find him and drag him to the underworld. Eventually an arrangement was agreed to where Tammuz and Geshtinana each spend six months in the underworld.

The month of Tammuz, during which the summer solstice fell and the days began to get shorter, marked Tammuz’s annual death and descent to the underworld. It was a time of ritualistic mourning in the ANE. Tammuz’s annual funeral was a week-long Babylonian holiday.

According to Chazal, the name Tammuz was kept despite being the name of a pagan god deliberately to remind us of the bad things that happen as a result of avoda zara – as attested to by the breach of Yerushalayim’s walls on the 9th of Tammuz, the disruption of the avoda in the Beis HaMikdash on the 17th, and the annual “three weeks” period, starting on sheva assur b’Tammuz, during which we observe mourning rituals and there is supposedly an increased danger of bad things happening.

Is it a coincidence, though, that there was a widespread tradition of mourning during Tammuz, and that the Jewish people just happen to have their own, independent reason for mourning at the exact same time? Or is it more likely that we today are observing during sheva assur b’Tammuz and the three weeks the last vestiges of the ancient mourning rites for the annual death of Tammuz?

Babylonian: Abu – Fire.

Discussed above.

Babylonian: Tashritu – Beginning. The beginning of the second half-year of the Babylonian calendar. Presided over by Shamash, the Mesopotamian god of the sun and the likely origin of the Hebrew word “shemesh.”

Babylonian: Arachsamna - Eighth month. Presided over by Marduk, here going by his name rather than his title.

Babylonian: Kislimu (meaning uncertain). Presided over by Nergal, a god of the sun as it appears during specific times of day and of the year.

Babylonian: Tebetu – Violent rain. Presided over by Papsukkal, the messenger god.

Babylonian: Shabatu – Rain.

Babylonian: Adaru – Threshing time. Presided over by Erra, an Akkadian plague god, also responsible for political confusion (perhaps like that found in the Purim story?).

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

I came across the following passage in 1812: War With America. It’s an excerpt from an eyewitness account written by a man who lived in Halifax, Canada at the time.

“The upper streets were full of brothels; grog-shops and dancing houses were to be seen in almost every part of town.” In the area around Brunswick Street, “nearly all the buildings were occupied as brothels for the soldiers and sailors. The streets of this part of town presented continually the disgusting sight of abandoned females of the lowest class in a state of drunkenness, bare-headed, without shoes, and in the most filthy and abominable condition.”

Firstly, this account flies in the face of the modern-society-is-becoming-increasingly-degenerate myth. Not that that particular myth is at all difficult to debunk, but the above passage is a concise description of an entire town sunken in debauchery. Not even Las Vegas fits the above description today.

Secondly, and far more interesting, is that the writer notes the bare-headedness of the prostitutes. This could be understood in one of two ways. The first, and the way I think he meant it, is as a description of how disheveled these women were. In a society where it was customary for everyone to wear hats or bonnets outside, the lack of a head-covering is a sign of slovenliness almost as serious as being filthy.

The second way it can be understood is as a moral failing. He is describing women “of the lowest class,” prostitutes who are habitually drunk and so brazen as to go about bare-headed and barefoot.

Suppose, instead of merely being part of a memoir, this passage made its way into a text believed to be an eternal guide to the proper way to live. Would it be more likely to be interpreted the first way, or in the second way? If the latter, it would likely lead to a religious requirement for head-coverings. Say, you wouldn’t happen to know of a real-life instance of a similar scenario…

On another note, for a few years now I’ve been doing handyman work to supplement my income from my near-nonexistent career as a psychologist. Since I moved six months ago I haven’t bothered to get licensed in this state, figuring that the extremely slim chance of getting a job in my field doesn’t justify the expense and trouble, and have been focusing on the handyman business instead. Incidentally, I make more money per hour patching drywall and hanging blinds than I would as a school psychologist. Go figure.

Anyway, I was working last night in a young kollel family’s home. When I arrived, Mrs. X requested that I leave the door open because her husband wasn’t home yet. I was once that yeshivish too, and I understand how seriously yichud is taken in the yeshivish world, but:

1. She was expecting her husband to come home from night seder any minute, and told me so. Given that he could have walked in at any time, halachically, there was no reason the leave the door open. Even locking it wouldn’t be a problem, because her husband has a key.

2. The implication that I might jump her if the door were closed is mildly insulting. Now she’d never met me before, so perhaps it can be argued she has no reason to trust me, but that is itself the problem. Intentionally or not, halachos like yichud breed distrust between the sexes and help perpetuate the women = succubae/ men = satyrs stereotypes.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

“God Was Not Good, Just on Our Side”

I recently came across this clip. It’s from God on Trial, a Masterpiece production based on accounts of a group of concentration camp inmates who convened a beis din and put God on trial.

It’s a powerful clip, and makes some excellent points. I was making similar points ten years ago, but back then I’d yet to have any contact with anyone who agreed with me. (I posted an excerpt of something I had written back then here.)

To be fair, the God of the Bible is nicer than many other gods, like, say, Zeus , or Loki, but He’s not GOOD. At best, when He was in a good mood and we hadn’t done anything lately to tick him off, He was good to us.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Gedolim Stories: Lies or Lunacy?

Yesterday Life in Israel had a post in which he related (and questioned) the following story:

A yeshiva bochur that was not interested in learning torah went to Rav Shteinman. He asked Rav Shteinman if he would like steak or ice cream.

Rav Shteinman asked what those things are, what the words mean. The boy responded that they are the names of very delicious foods. Rav Shteinman than said no, he would not want those foods.

The young man than said that if he is offering the rav food that everybody considers to be delicious, yet the rav does not want any of it, so "I can also not want to learn Torah even though everybody claims torah is very sweet. So why do they force me to learn torah?"

Rav Shteinman responded that if you would give someone honey and he would put it in his mouth and say it is bitter, it is a sign that this person has sores in his mouth. The same thing with Torah - someone who does not want to learn torah, it means that he has lashon ha'ra in his mouth and therefore has no desire to learn torah.

Like many stories meant to show the piety of the Gedolim, it instead makes its protagonist look foolish. It suggests both that R’ Shteinman is ignorant of something as common as ice cream and that he is not intelligent enough to understand that honey and ice cream fill the same niche in the analogies of this discussion.

It was while listening to a similar gadol story years ago that I realized that either these stories are less than accurate or the gedolim were nuts. In that story a group of talmidim were following a rav around while he did bedikas chometz. When he was finished, one of the talmidim said, “Rebbe, this is good, we searched the entire house and didn’t find even a crumb of chometz!” The rav ripped his shirt open, pounded on his chest, and cried out, “There is no chometz in the house, but in here, in here there is still chomtz!”

I think there are three possible origins for such stories.

1) It really happened as described. I can see that there are people who would be inspired by someone so holy that they are so immersed in Torah they don’t even know about common things like ice cream or who is given to effusive, exciting emotional displays of piety. To me, treating as near-divine the words of someone profoundly ignorant of the culture he lives in or of someone given to emotional outbursts seems foolish.

2) The story is based on a real incident, but is exaggerated for effect. There really was a bochur who complained to R’ Shteinman that he didn’t like learning, but there was no mention of ice cream. The rav pointed to his heart and bemoaned the presence of “chometz”, but he didn’t rip open his shirt, pound on his chest, and shout. This to me seems the most likely origin for gadol stories. Most people don’t make up stories, but will often embroider and exaggerate real incidents to make them more exciting.

3) The stories are completely made up.

Given the number of gadol stories circulating, chances are there are some that fall into each of the three categories.

It was crazy gadol stories like those above that started me questioning what I had been taught. For all that exaggerated stories may be inspiring to some, perhaps the frum community should think about the potential harm of such stories, both to people like me who may go from questioning silly stories about gedolim that are portrayed as semi-divine to questioning stories supposedly written by the Divine hand; and to the gedolim that both star in these stories and are made to look foolish by them.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

What was Moshe’s name?

I was thinking about my latest post last night, and it occurred to me that “Moshe” probably was not Moshe’s real name. What follows is purely speculation, as I haven’t yet researched any of this, but:

1) Perhaps “Moshe” was a nickname for people with “Mose” as part of their name, rather like calling someone named McSomething “Mac.”

2) Perhaps Moshe’s name started out like all of the Pharaohs with “Mose” as part of their name, and had a god’s name as a beginning – such as Ramose (born-of-Ra) or Thutmose (born-of-Thoth) - and the name of the idolatrous god was later dropped as incongruous with the man who spoke directly with (the jealous) God and was the greatest monotheistic leader of all time.*

Call me cynical, but I’m leaning towards the second explanation.

*In keeping with the pasuk that says he was named for where the Egyptian princess found him, perhaps he was named for the god of the Nile, in which case his proper name would have been Hapimose – born-of-Hapi, god of the Nile.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Pahro and Pharaoh

Statue of Hatshepsut, the female Pharaoh

About eight years ago, I went through a phase when I was very interested in researching the historical background of yetzias Mitzrayim. At this point, while I had my questions and doubts, I still mostly believed in what I had been taught in yeshiva. I was also newly interested in history – while I had discovered that I liked reading about history while in high school, I didn’t start reading history books instead of novels until I was in college.

What I found was fascinating.

If the Hebrew and secular calendars are adjusted for an apparent 165 year discrepancy a surprising number of things line up.

The New Kingdom period in Egypt begins at roughly the same time that the Jews were enslaved. The New Kingdom marks the point at which the Hyksos, a Semitic people that had ruled Egypt for a hundred years, were ousted by the Egyptians. It was indeed a new Pharaoh who was now ruling over Egypt, from a new dynasty and a different peoples than the one who was indebted to Yosef. This new ruling class would feel no obligation to the memory of someone who had been a collaborator with their former oppressors. If anything, it would give weight to their concerns related by the Chumash: that the Jews would side with the enemies of Egypt. In the Chumash, this concern seems to come out of the blue. Within its historical context, it makes sense. The Egyptians were concerned that the Semitic Jews would side with the recently deposed Semitic Hyksos, exactly as Yosef had done. The solution was to enslave all the Jews.

The Pharaoh into whose household Moshe is adopted is Ahmose. Mose, an Egyptian word that means “born of,” is both given by the Chumash as Moshe’s name and is the major component of the Pharaoh’s name.

The Chumash says that Pharaoh died, and the work became harder under the new Pharaoh. There is a medrash that says Pharaoh had leprosy, and would bathe in the blood of Jewish children to try to alleviate his condition. The Pharaoh who died was Thutmose II, whose mummy was found to be covered in lesions, evidence of a severe skin disease. He was succeeded by his teenage son Thutmose III, with Hatshepsut, Thutmose III’s mother (and Thutmose II’s wife AND sister) serving as regent. Hatshepsut quickly displaced her son and ruled as Pharaoh in her own right, the only woman ever to do so. To help solidify her rule she erected many monuments to herself which depicted her as male – monuments built by slaves.

The Pharaoh Moshe went to to demand the Jews’ freedom was Hatshepsut. Pharaoh didn’t die during makos bechoros, despite being a firstborn, because only the firstborn males died. Firstborn women did not.

In the early 1800s a document from about the same time as yetzias Mitzrayim was discovered in Memphis, Egypt. Called the Ipuwer Papyrus after its author, an Egyptian named Ipuwer, it described violent upheavals in Egypt: famine, drought, and slaves escaping with the Egyptians’ wealth.

After Hatshepsut’s death, Thutmose III had her monuments destroyed and all mentions of her chiseled off walls and steles. We only know of Hatshepsut because of the accidental discovery of her tomb. The popular theory is that Thutmose III had her memory erased as revenge for her displacing him as pharaoh. Might it also have been to erase the memory of an embarrassing defeat at the hand of the Egyptians’ former slaves? Could this mass erasure program also account for the lack of Egyptian records of the Jews living in Egypt?

About a century after Thutmose III, Amenhotep IV, who renamed himself Akhenaten, built a new capital city from scratch, and forced Egypt to adopt the monotheistic worship of Aten, the sun-disc. (When he died, Egypt quickly reverted to worshiping its entire pantheon of gods, and Akhenaten’s new city was abandoned.) Was Amenhotep/Akhenaten inspired to monotheism by the recent display of power by a monotheistic god?

What I found made me feel confident that my frumkeit rested on solid ground. Even then, I wondered what an Egyptologist would make of the parallels I found, but it made me feel that my religion was rooted in historical fact.

Yet there were things that didn’t quite fit. According to the same timeline, the pyramids had been built a couple of centuries before the mabul! Some poking around online led me to one article that claimed the Great Sphinx, built about the same time as the pyramids at Giza, had horizontal weathering patterns consistent with flood damage. There was my answer: the pyramids HAD been built before the mabul – and had survived! I speculated that their size and heavy stone construction were what had saved them from the floodwaters. Happily, the same principle could be applied to other ancient monuments.

And yet…

The history of Egypt is not interrupted by a world-changing flood in the centuries after the construction of the Great Pyramids. There is no sudden gap in the record, no rediscovery and adoption of an ancient culture by new people such as would be expected to if nearly all of humanity was wiped out. Instead, Egyptian history flows smoothly, year after year, millennium after millennium, a continuous culture that lasted for some three thousand years.

Even yetzias Mitzrayim, the event for which I’d found plausible evidence, seems to have left no mark on Egyptian history. The reign of Thutmose III was not marked by a period of rebuilding from the devastation of the maakos and the shock of losing a huge number of slaves that must have been essential to a large part of the Egyptian economy. It was instead a period of conquest and increased prosperity.

Worse, if we are to take midrashim at face value, as I had done for many of my points above, we also had to take at face value to medrash that says that Hashem killed four-fifths of the Bnei Yosroel during maakos choshech. That would mean that Hashem killed some twelve million people for the crime of not wanting to leave the only life their families had known for generations and follow an Egyptian prince into the desert.

In the long run, I’m not sure if this particular foray into biblical historicity was a net gain or loss for my religiosity, but this way of relating to biblical stories – expecting them to conform to other known facts about the world – was terribly harmful to my emunah. There is something to be said for the approach that non-Torah knowledge is to be avoided and that the Torah is right and everything that might contradict it, up to and including our own senses, is wrong. Such an epistemology is maddening to anyone who doesn’t already accept it, and is based on circular logic, but it is effective at keeping people within the fold. For me, trying to make the Torah fit with the world we know was what eventually led me to conclude that it is best understood as mythology rather than history.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

An Anniversary, an Index, and a Proposal

Here we are again, another year gone by. Tomorrow is two years since I put up the first post on this blog. I looked through the last year’s worth of posts just now, and I found to my surprise that they comprise not even a quarter of the total. A lot has happened in the last year, but day-to-day I haven’t really gotten any busier. Just lazier, I suppose. Or less enthusiastic.

On an unrelated note, I’ve been wondering if it might be useful to create a central index for the blogosphere. There are only a couple of dozen Jewish skeptic blogs at any given time, and the old ones tend to disappear, either because they’re taken down or because no one links to them anymore. What do you think?

Year Two Index

Best of
Bias and Rationality
An exploration of whether biases influence reasoning and whether those biases affect the validity of conclusions.
Corrupting Influences
Which is more dangerous – licentious material or dissenting information, and the use of the fear of the former to ban the latter.
Jewish Music
By far my most popular post. A side-by-side comparison of some mainstream “Jewish” songs and the pop tunes that they copied.
Eisav HaRasha?
A straight reading of the Chumash shows that Eisav wasn’t quite as evil as he’s made out to be, and Yaakov was no paragon of virtue.

Bias and Rationality
The Force Behind Nature
Just Shoot Him!
Euphemisms, Shema, and Paradigms
“God Himself Couldn’t Sink This Ship”Eisav HaRasha?
With Gratitude to Hashem…
Suicide is Painless…
The Celestial Bank

Response to articles / things read / events
Big Brother is Watching You…
Debugged Kashrus
Tiferes Yisroel Update
When Humans Become Gods

Reminiscing / culture
I Have Met the Other, and He is Me
Corrupting Influences
Jewish Music
Frummer Than God

1st Century Spin Doctors

Search Judaism
Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter Four, section four I
Unfortunately, the last in the series. Maybe someday I’ll go back to it. Probably not. After a while it went from being fun to being annoying.

For Fun
Shaped Like a BLOGG!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Frummer Than God

I recently received an invitation to a family wedding. The invitation was unremarkable, except for one interesting coincidence: both of the bride’s grandfathers had married women named “rayuso.”

The recent practice of omitting women’s names is ostensibly because printing a woman’s name is untznius. Yet even if we take it as a given that tznius is a legitimate concern, this practice makes no sense.

1) In regards to this particular case, it seems that it would be far more tznius to write “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” than it is to write “Mr. Smith and his beloved.”

2) The stated rationale of tznius rules is to avoid anything erotic. It follows that anything avoided due to tznius concerns is (at least somewhat) erotic. I find it hard to believe that even the most sex-crazed guy would find the name of a grandmother printed on a wedding invitation arousing. Yet it seems there are people in the Chareidi world who believe that even mentioning a woman by name is erotic. (Either that, or they never thought through the implications.) Which brings us to:

3) There are women’s names all through tanach. Here is a community that sincerely believes that God wrote every word in the Torah. God clearly thought there was no problem with referring to women by name. And yet, they have the chutzpah to try to be FRUMMER THAN GOD!

Go figure.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Suicide is Painless…

I sat at one of the long tables in the dining room, idly munching on potato chips while I listened to the bearded man at the front of the room. It was motzei Shabbos, and like every week when Shabbos ended early enough, the yeshiva had a melave malka after night seder. The man at the front of the room was a guest speaker, a rebbe at one of the other high schools in the city.

I’ve long since forgotten most of his drasha, but one story that he told stuck with me. A couple had bought a house and discovered that part of the floor in the attic was broken. They called a contractor, he came the next day, and after a few hours of work it was repaired. A few days later, they went up to the attic to put some boxes away and found that the floor was broken again in the same spot. They called the contractor back. This time he spent an entire day reinforcing the floor. A week later it was broken again.

A few days later the couple was discussing the problem with a neighbor. “I’m surprised you bought the house at all.” he said. “After that boy hung himself in the attic, the house was vacant for years.”

“That was why the floor was breaking.” The rebbe declared. “The neshama of this boy was barred from gan eden, and even from gehenom. With no place to go, he kept returning to the place where he had killed himself. And every time his neshama visited, the floor broke. If he had only known what would happen, he would never have killed himself!”

In retrospect, it sounds like the kind of ghost story ten year olds tell around a campfire to scare each other. For some reason, though, it brought the afterlife into sharp focus for me. This boy, who had killed himself hoping to end it all, was instead living on and suffering for his misdeed. I, too, would live on after I died in this world. I too would be judged. I no longer saw Olam Haboh as a fairytale, but as a real place that I would one day go to. I, not a character in a story called “my neshama.” For years, I would periodically have dreams in which I stood before the Heavenly court.

It’s the association with that sudden insight, rather than any inherent quality of the story, which made me remember it.

When I took Abnormal Psychology in college and learned about major depression and suicide I was reminded of the story. This time, instead of bringing a religious concept into focus, it raised some disturbing questions. Nearly everyone who commits suicide does so because they are clinically depressed. The only exceptions are terminally ill patients who wish to end their pain and religiously-motivated people such as suicide bombers or the Jonestown Massacre. A clinically depressed person who dies by suicide was killed by his illness no less than someone who dies of cancer. Could a person be held morally responsible for dying of an illness, condemned because of it to exist in limbo for all eternity?

It turns out that the rabbonim today agree that a clinically depressed person is not responsible for committing suicide. The family sits shiva for them, and they may be buried in a Jewish cemetery. But what, then, of all of the suicide victims of the millennia between matan Torah and advent of modern psychology? How many families of clinically depressed suicide victims were denied the opportunity to mourn their loss and to give their loved ones a Jewish burial (something that I assume would have caused them pain). And why would Hashem dictate a halachah that He knew would be improperly applied until the modern rise of psychology?

It would be a long time before I came to the obvious answer: He didn’t. The severe condemnation of suicide reflects a time when there was no recognition of mental illness. Perhaps it was a way of punishing someone who murdered himself: after all, he couldn’t be executed for his crime, so denying him a proper burial and condemning him in the afterlife was the next best thing. Perhaps the knowledge that they would be denied mourning and burial in a Jewish cemetery served to dissuade some people from committing suicide. But the divine mandate of an all-knowing God it was not.

[Inspired by this post from Onionsoupmix]

The title, of course, comes from this:

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Celestial Bank

It’s been a while since I last posted. I recently moved to a different state, and I’ve been busy packing, then unpacking.

DovBear had a post today about an email he received asking women to light candles five minutes early on Friday as a z’chus that a sick woman should get better. He asks, “the creator of heaven and earth be swayed if a lot of women light candles a few minutes earlier?” and waxes philosophical about how people can relate to God. I commented,

“This woman is from the group of people who, when they think about it at all,see s'char as currency. There’s a celestial banking system, where mitzvos and miracles have prices. So, say the recovery from disease costs $1000, and lighting candles early is worth $1 a minute, all you need to do is get 200 women to light candles five minutes early and donate their celestial money to pay for the miraculous healing.”

It’s interesting that learning Torah is contrasted in the mishnah with a carpenter’s work. The analogy to money goes way back. Of course, as my rabbeim were fond of pointing out, we don’t know what any given mitzvah is worth, which means we have no way of knowing if we have enough money to pay for miracles, or for a good seat in Olam Haboh. And we have to constantly worry about using up our money on mundane stuff here on Earth, like having a good parnassah, or having a near-miss with a car.

Midrashim describe many characters in tanach as worring about using up their z’chusim in Olam Hazeh. I wonder why, though. A dollars a dollar, right? Whether I spend it in this world or the next, I should get a dollar’s worth of benefit from it. So why the concern about using z’chusim in olam hazeh? It must be that to spend in this world the celestial z’chusim we earn by doing mitzvos, we first have to exchange them from olam habo z’chusim to olam hazeh z’chusim, and there’s a lousy exchange rate. :-)

More seriously, perhaps it’s the difference between buying something consumable vs. something permanent: a loaf of bread in this world vs. real estate in the next.

Then there are the Chassidishe stories about the horrible person who is wealthy because he is being paid off in this world for the single mitzvah he once did. So maybe the exchange rate isn’t so bad after all.

I think in the popular imagination, the celestial banking system works something like this:
* S’char/z'chusim = $
* Mitzvos pay s'char
* Extra mitzvos/chumros earn more s'char over the mitzva’s usual payout
* Kulos earn less schar than the mitzva’s usual payout
* Basic necessities cost some schar, but most goes into an account for Olam Haboh
* “Miraculous” events, like avoiding a car crash or recovering from a serious illness, cost extra s'char
** Sometimes one doesn’t have enough schar in his account, or Hashem decides to save the s’char for Olam Haboh instead of spending it on avoiding the car crash/healing the person.
** One can donate s’char to someone else to buy a refuah, usually by doing something extra specifically to earn s’char for that purpose. This can be used to buy someone’s health if the sick person’s account is inadequate or if Hashem doesn’t want to draw on the sick person’s account.
** If the sick person dies, it’s because either not enough s’char was collecte for him or Hashem decided that it was time for him to go, and the refuah simply wasn’t for sale. The s’char donated on the sick person’s behalf goes into a communal account that can then be drawn on the benefit other sick or needy people.
* Aveiros don’t really figure into the s’char balance, but doing a lot of aveiros may raise the cost of a miracle and/or make Hashem less inclined to sell you one.