Friday, January 30, 2015

Where Have All the Skeptics Gone?

I realized yesterday that only four Jewish blogs on my list post regularly anymore, and they all belong to frum people: DovBear, Rationalist Judaism, Fink or Swim, and one I started following only recently, EmesV'Emunah. The rest post infrequently, if at all, and most have been defunct for years. Even Frum Satire, the site through which I discovered the blogosphere way back when, is a shadow of its former self. There was a time when  almost every time I looked, there was a new post from someone. Now it seems the blogosphere is dying.

When Unpious started up it subsumed a lot of the Chassidshe skeptic blogs, like "A Hasid and A Heretic,"  and "Penned In," (both which are gone now) and of course "Hasidic Rebel." It published essays by those and other bloggers, but Unpious hasn't posted anything in almost a year.

A year ago also there was a short-lived blog, "Diaryof a Jewish Skeptic," which looked promising, but there were only four posts, and nothing for the last year. Two years ago " Divrei Ben Zoma," stopped posting.  It was a blog by a frum guy with a skeptical tendency that explored theological questions. Around the same time a blog I particularly enjoyed, " coin laundry," also stopped posting. Its author was a firmly atheistic Jewish woman from Toronto who was interested in Orthodox practices. There were a lot of interesting conversations over its two-year run.

Three years ago "Orthoprax" stopped posting. He was one of the original skeptic blogs, and ran for five years. He posted once a year ago, but I think it's safe to say his blog is finished. Another of bloggers who was around when I discovered the blogosphere, "FrumHeretic," also stopped posting then. As did two blogs with an academic-ish flavor, " Baruch's Thoughts" and " Textuality." "ThePraxy Project," a collaborative blog belonging to two college-age guys exploring Jewish theology and the mechanisms of belief also ended three years ago.

Four years ago saw the end of the great XGH's blogging career with the deletion of his latest blog, "OrthoModerndox." It was also the end of another of the greats, the " Da'as Hedyot" blog which ran for six years and included many interesting posts, not least of which were his interview series with a diverse group of people who had left the frum world. He posted once two years ago, but that blog is likely also finished. At that time " onionsoupmix," an orthoprax women - and one of the few female Jewish skeptic  bloggers - who had also been blogging for six years decided she didn't care enough about the foibles of the frum world to post anymore. Two of the smaller blogs, " TheSkeptitcher Rebbe" and "Sitting on the Fence" also stopped posting then. And there was a short-lived blog which lasted for less than a year but caused a lot of interest and controversy, "The Orthoprax Rabbi'sBlog."

Five years ago "Frustrated Ortho Jew," "DivreiAcher," and "Notes on Nothing" stopped posting. So did a blog I really enjoyed, "Lunacy Log," which lasted a little less than two years and picked apart the rantings of the Jewish blogosphere's resident troll.

Six years ago "Baal Habos," another of the blogs that was around when I first found the skeptic blogs, ended his run.

And there are others over the years, some interesting, some not, which lasted for a few months or years, then were abandoned, made private, or deleted.

There are a few that still post occasionally, like "UndercoverKofer," "Wolfish Musings," and "Atheodox Jew," but there's nothing like the volume there used to be. Nor do the blogs that stop posting get replaced by new ones like they used to.

So, where is everyone?

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Practice vs. Pedantry

This past week I was at my in-laws for Shabbos. At lunch, they read from a Shabbos halacha book. It is divided into sections to be read at Shabbos meals, and is meant to be finished over the course of one year. Apparently this is something they started doing lately. Anyway, this particular section was about lighting candles Friday night, specifically about what to do if someone is staying at a hotel where everyone lights in the dining room. Since the purpose of lighting candles is to give light, can only  the first person to get to the dining room light with a bracha, or can each person light their own candles and make a bracha?

In the abstract, I suppose this is a valid legalistic question, but it completely misses the point of why people do things like light candles Friday night. People light candles because that's what you do to start Shabbos, because it makes them feel good to perform the ritual and continue the tradition, because without lighting candles Friday night it doesn't feel like Shabbos. In the absence of the book's legalistic discussion, I don't think the question would occur to most people. Lighting candles Friday night is just what you do. From the point of view of how and why people actually perform rituals like candle-lighting, a discussion about whether the light is really necessary is nonsensical. (The fact is that electric lights make lighting candles for light pointless, and yet no one has suggested abolishing the custom, making the whole discussion nonsensical even from a legalistic standpoint, but that's beside the point.)

It reminded me of the famous essay, "Rupture and Reconstruction," about the change in Orthodox transmission of rites and ritual from a memetic one learned naturally in the home and community to a textual one learned through study and consulting authoritative books. In a society with a memetic tradition, the question of whether or not everyone lights with a bracha wouldn't come up, because of course everyone does. Lighting candles Friday night and making a bracha is what one does as Shabbos begins. In a society with a textually-transmitted tradition (or more accurately, where the tradition is learned both memetically and from texts, but where the text is the authority) people must be always consulting the texts so they can be sure they are performing rituals properly, and things that would once have been academic questions of interest only to scholars now intrude into practice.

On the one hand, I'm in favor of people doing things primarily for rational rather than emotional reasons or because that's just how it's done. On the other hand, this legalistic hair splitting ruins some of the useful things that religion does, like grounding people in traditions and rituals that give a sense of significance to the daily rhythm of their lives. It takes something that comes easily and imbues the mundane with a touch of the  transcendent and turns it into a circumscribed chore. It ruins the religious experience and completely misunderstands how and why people perform rituals.