Thursday, November 24, 2016

Agudah's Disappointing Discussion of Adult Dissidents

I saw this video the other day when someone linked to it on facebook. It's from the recent Agudah Convention, and is titled, " Diving Off The Derech - The Emerging Adult At Risk Phenomenon" It features self-proclaimed experts on the "new" phenomenon of adults in their twenties and thirties going off the derech (OTD). To put it mildly, it was disappointing. There were no insights, only oblique acknowledgment of problems within the frum community, and no recognition that anyone might legitimacy and sincerely disagree with them about the tenets of Orthodox Judaism. Instead there was repetition of all the tired old canards routinely leveled at those who go OTD.

The first speaker introduced the subject. As part of the introduction he told the audience about a man who was no longer frum who had told him that Yiddishkeit didn't mean anything to him anymore, that he was "dead inside." The way he told the story gave me the impression that he was paraphrasing, that he had interpreted this man's lack of feelings towards Judaism as a general spiritual malaise. The implication here is that if one doesn't find Yiddishkeit meaningful, it is because they are dead inside. It got worse from there.

The next speaker told a story about a young man who, when he got married, had as one of his conditions that the girl had to agree to learning for a year in Israel. They ended up staying there for four years, and then he spent two more years in kollel in the U.S. Some years after he had left kollel, he started to drop observances. He slowly stopped going to shul, keeping Shabbos, and putting on teffillin. His wife went to his Rosh Yeshiva, who told her to ride it out, it was just a phase. (Isn't it odd that she went to the Rosh Yeshiva instead of talking to her husband? Maybe she did, and the speaker didn't think it was relevant?) Then one Yom Kippur she got the kids ready for shul and came downstairs to find him eating breakfast. Motzei yom tov she took the kids and left.

The speaker emphasized that the young man was a good husband and father, and told the story to make a point about how kids in the frum world are raised in a bubble that doesn't prepare them to interact with the wider world. This is a valid point, and I'm glad to see it being acknowledged. But then the speaker had the audacity to characterize this story as the guy "walking out on his family." She left him, but apparently failure to conform to frum norms is tantamount to going out for cigarettes and never coming home. It was at this point, about twenty minutes in and just past the introduction, that my blood started to boil.

Then he made his point about growing up in cloistered communities more specific, and ruined it. He claimed that people are insufficiently connected to their Yiddishkeit, that they're just going through the motions, and when they come into contact with the wider world, they, " see everything in the world, and don't understand why they can't be part of it." As though people leave primarily because of the pull of the outside world, a version of the ever-popular "people go OTD because they can't control their taivos" canard.

It's interesting to note that in her book Off the Derech, Faranak Margolese makes the point that, "Most formerly observant Jews today seem to have left, not because the outside world pulled them in, but rather because the observant one pushed them out. They experienced Judaism as a source of pain… so they did what was natural: run in the other direction.[1]" Her research shows that the speaker has it completely wrong.

The final speaker was R' Shaya Cohen, the director of Priority1, an organization whose goal is to keep kids from going OTD. He showed recognition of some of the issues that cause people to leave Orthodoxy, such as the suppression in schools of questions without pat comfortable answers, the dissatisfaction with, "the torah says so" as an explanation for why frum people do what they do, and the enforced conformity and uniformity is yeshivos and bais yakovs.

While he pointed out some of the problems that cause people to go OTD, it's interesting that his criticisms of the frum community were all spun as inevitable minor issues or even as the result of the community's successes.  He points to the growth of the frum community as the root cause of the problem, as though the community can't keep up with its own success. This is despite frum people being only about ten percent[2] of all Jews, a percentage that has been steady for decades[3]. He says that the issues that bother people who go OTD should be acknowledged, which is good, but then he says that this is not because there is actually anything wrong with the system, "the system is good, everything is great," or anything wrong with the community or the Torah. It is because the OTD person has been influenced by outside factors or has misinterpreted things. The system didn't work for the OTD person because he "had some unique questions, …some unique problems, … psychological problems, … emotional problems, … family problems." There may be issues in the community and school system that need be addressed, but these are issues only because there is some problem with the person who went OTD. If they were normal people, they wouldn't have had these problems. And so the audience and the community are shielded from any real criticism.

He characterizes the adults he sees who are OTD as in pain, and asks, "What can we do, not just for the poor suffering families, but for the poor suffering individuals themselves, that are hurting so much inside? I can tell you from experience that these people deep down want nothing more than a yiddishkeit than can work for them." He claims that the people he sees complain about an emptiness, a void that isn't filled. That as much as they blame their parents and teachers and the frum world, inside they blame themselves, "I must have been unworthy to have gone this way."

I moved fully away from belief in Orthodox Judaism as an adult, and I didn't experience any of what he describes. I didn't suffer, I don't feel empty inside, and I don't think that I stopped believing in the supernatural because I'm unworthy to have emunah. What nonsense. I wonder, though, if all of this might be true of the people sees. These might be people who are going through a painful process of losing their faith, and are looking for a rabbi to guide them, or people whose families have pressured them into seeing a rabbi in order to "save" them from going OTD. If they feel awful about themselves, though, it is because everyone in their lives has been telling them how awful they are for going OTD, not because of some missing metaphysical fulfillment or pain in their non-existent neshama.

Although R' Cohen knows the reasons that people go OTD, he doesn't seem to really understand them, and dismisses them all as "excuses," as something the OTD person tells himself to rationalize his behavior and his drifting away from frumkeit. In other words, there are no kashas, only teirutzim. He says that these excuses need to dealt with, because they prevent people from dealing with other issues, but the  intellectual issues OTD people raise are just excuses. He doesn't seem to recognize that people can think these things sincerely, and have the issues affect their behavior. He assumes it must be the other way around, that they are doing things not in keeping with their upbringing, and then looking for excuses to make themselves comfortable with their behavior. I had to stop watching for a bit at this point. I can only take so much of someone insulting me in one sitting.

R' Cohen says, dismissively, that "the biggest excuse used to be tzadik v'ra lo." As though the Problem of Evil is some inconsequential excuse, and not something that philosophers and theologians have struggled with for thousands of years. As though the logical paradox presented by a tri-omni god is not a good reason to conclude that He doesn't exist. Then again, there's a reason that the name Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who first posed the Problem of Evil, became the word for Jewish heretics.

He then says that, "today there's a better excuse, and an excuse it is. When they hear about the behavior of the so-called righteous, they get turned off. It's a bad excuse. It's a disgusting excuse!" It's a disgusting excuse?! Why disgusting? Should we excuse the behavior of people who are claimed to be righteous, who are community leaders? Should we not take it as evidence of something rotten in the religion when those held up as religious exemplars behave despicably?

He finishes his litany of "excuses" with, "they're not really sure about what happened at Har Sinia," as though this is some silly issue. As if only someone looking for an excuse would question the veracity of matan torah, and as if doubting that matan torah happened is not a good reason to stop being frum.

Then he reveals the "real" reasons that people go OTD. "They aren't understanding, what's in it for me? We can't rely on long-term, we need to show them what's in it for them in the here and now." In other words, OTD people aren't really questioning whether there's any truth to Orthodoxy, they're children who don't understand delayed gratification and are leaving frumkeit because they aren't getting anything from frumkeit right now. To be fair, I think he's right that whether religious practice does something positive for a person has a larger influence on whether he will maintain that practice than do promises of Heaven,  but the way he makes that point is insulting.

He goes on, "they need someone who can explain to them how Yiddishkeit can bring them happiness, they need happiness, because they sure don't got it, especially when they're deserting their family and their children." Because we all know that OTD people are miserable, irresponsible burnouts who are in pain and dead inside, right? What's worse, often it's the frum spouse that leaves, takes the kids, and fights against the OTD parent having custody or even contact, with the full support of their community behind them. This is the OTD person deserting their family and children?  Not unless you characterize not toeing the frum  line as desertion. And again, here we find the characterization of those who go OTD as unhappy without Yiddishkeit. There are plenty of OTD people who are happy.

In addition to being something frum people tell themselves to assure themselves that frumkeit is the only way to live, I wonder if this might be an artifact of the people he sees. He's likely to see people who are newly OTD, who are going through the turmoil of leaving the only world they've known, of their families' initial reaction to their deconversion, and of losing friends, family, and even their kids. Of course people going through that are not happy. He's unlikely to see people who have been OTD for years and built happy successful lives.

The end of R' Cohen's talk in the worst part. He explains that many people who go OTD feel that they were loved by their parents and friends contingently, only so long as they kept doing what frum society required of them. Not because they were people, who are intrinsically worthy of love and respect. They were loved for what they did, not for who they were. He claims that, "in fact, many share a deep dark secret that going off started as a test to see if your acceptance is of me, or of the way I conduct my life." He says that it's important to validate the OTD person, to show them that you care about them as people and are open to their concerns. That's wonderful, right? He's right when he says that the frum person doesn't have to agree with the person who went OTD, but he should show him love and respect as a person and accept that the OTD person has real concerns.

And then it all goes south. R' Cohen says that once you've done this, once you've shown the OTD person love and acceptance and validated his concerns, "you become the most important person in the world. You have them in the palm of your hand, you can guide them, direct them." That's not at all manipulative and cult-like, is it? He correctly talks about how people feel they are loved for what they do, rather than who they are, and how this is corrosive to their religiosity. Then he gleefully explains how to exploit this by acting as though you care about them, regardless of what they do, while all the time only cultivating the relationship so that you can manipulate them into doing what you think they should. What he's advocating is duplicitous and hypocritical. It's downright Machiavellian.

It's odd that he shows no concern that one of the people he's counseling might see this video, bringing the whole manipulative scheme crashing down, and leaving that person feeling betrayed. Even if he wasn't concerned for the person's feelings, wouldn't he be worried about losing a yiddishe neshama? Perhaps he wasn't aware he was being filmed or that Agudah would put the video online. If so, though, what was the person who put the video online thinking?

So much of this video is them assuring themselves that there isn't any valid reason for someone to leave Orthodoxy. It's one thing when you're talking about teenagers, who can be impulsive, rebellious, immature, and unsophisticated, but when adults leave, it raises the possibility that there are real problems. So it must be that these people are in pain, are dead inside, that they leave because they weren't given the proper appreciation of Yiddishkeit as children and are seduced away from it by the outside world.

There is recognition on the part of R' Cohen of the things that people who go OTD complain about/ say motivate them to leave, but he dismisses all of them, social, emotional, and philosophical, as excuses. He correctly identifies the resentment many feel when their parents and teachers show them that they care more about what they do, about whether they perform required rituals and behave as frum society dictates is proper, than they do about the person as an individual worthy of love and respect. But then he advises those who are counseling people at risk of going OTD to engage in manipulative behavior where they pretend to care more about the person as an individual than they do about conformity to expected behaviors, all with the goal of manipulating the OTDer into conforming with frum society's norms.

I think a major cause of this reprehensible rhetoric is Agudah's inability to admit even the possibility that they might be wrong about Judaism, forcing them to protect the inviolable purity of the community and refusing to acknowledge that people can have sincere and valid issues with the community and with Orthodox Judaism. As is often the case, dogmatism prevents meaningful communication.

Some might wonder why I care enough to watch an hour-long video and write a long post picking it apart. After all, I'm not the target audience for either this video or for the tactics it discusses. Neither I nor my community look to Agudah for guidance. Let them do their thing, let them think what they want, and let it be. It's not like I'm going to change the minds of anyone who was at that convention.

I care because the attitudes disseminated by Agudah do influence wider frum society, and for better or worse, I live in that society. I care because my family, including most of my extended family, does look to Agudah for guidance. I care because my brother went to ZA and considers R' Cohen his Rosh Yeshiva, and I know I can't discuss this video with him without us both getting upset. I care because of the pervasive insulting characterization of those who leave  frumkeit by those who have influence over the lives of people who might be questioning the truths they were raised with. I care because I'm not a Christian, and when someone smacks me in the face with an insulting diatribe, I'm not going to turn the other cheek.

[1] Margolese, F.(2005). Off the Derech. Jerusalem, Israel: Devora Publishing Company (page 37)
[2] Pew Research Center, (2013, October 1). A Portrait of Jewish Americans. Retrieved from
[3] " Eleven percent of American Jews defined themselves as Orthodox in the 1970 study… That figure has remained relatively consistent." Elazar, D.J. How Strong is Orthodox Judaism -- Really? The Demographics of Jewish Religious Identification. Jerusalem Center for Public Affaris. Retrieved from

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Producing Prayer's Perceptions II

Feelings of spiritual transcendence and oneness with God and/or the universe can be attributed to a purely physiological phenomenon. There is a region of the brain that neuroscientists call the orientation association area (OAA) that orients us in physical space. It is this area that controls our perception of ourselves in relation to the objects around us and differentiates between "me" and "not me." People with damage to this part of the brain have trouble navigating through even familiar spaces, and will frequently bump into things that a typical person will easily avoid.

It has been found that meditation and some drugs can cause activity in the OAA to decrease. As its function of differentiating between a person and the rest of the world  decreases, the person feels a sense of connection to things outside himself. Damage to the OAA, in addition to bumping into things, can cause people to spontaneously experience feelings of spiritual transcendence. 

This is a physiological explanation for the feelings people may experience during davening. Davening is a form of meditation, and can at times cause the OAA to go into hibernation. The spiritual feelings people experience are likely not the result of a connection with the divine, but are the result of a malfunction in the brain that blurs the boundaries between "me" and "not me."

Monday, June 27, 2016

Questions, not Excuses

This is the opening to the first chapter in my book. Comments/corrections/suggestions are welcome.

                Moshe sat in the waiting room, a little nervous, a little hopeful. In many ways, he was a typical yeshiva bochur. He had spent a couple of years leaning full-time after high school and was now learning part of the day and in college in the evenings. He dressed the same as the other bochrim in his yeshiva, listened to the same frum music that they did, went to the same events, and kept all of the mitzvos. Yet, in one important way, Moshe was different.
                His fellow students had no problems with their emunah, but Moshe was plagued by questions. He wanted to know the reasons for mitzvos. To understand how many things accepted by the community, like segulos, worked. To square strange statements about the world in tanach and the gemara with how he knew the world to work. As a teenager, the principal of his high school had called Moshe into his office one day and told him that, while Yiddishkeit allowed one to ask questions, even encouraged it, he should stop asking his questions in class. These questions didn't occur to the other bochurim, and why should their emunah chas v'sholom be weakened by Moishe's questions?
                Moshe was a good kid, and he did as the principal asked, but the questions didn't go away. If anything, the more he learned about the world, the stronger they became. Moshe sought out and read kiruv books that promised to answer questions of emunah and prove the Yiddishkeit was correct. They were disappointing. Every now and then Moshe would come across something that seemed convincing, that seemed like it could be the idea on which he could rebuild his faith. Within a week or two, as he thought about the exciting new concept, he would sadly realize it was full of holes. It relied on logical errors, or didn't match up with real-world experiences, or contradicted other things Moshe had learned in yeshiva.
                Moishe's interest in his religion blossomed into an interest in the history of Judaism, in comparative religion, in philosophy and mythology and biblical scholarship. The more he read, the less tenable yiddishkeit seemed, until one day Moshe realized that he couldn't avoid the obvious conclusion. Judaism wasn't true, and there probably wasn't a God. The realization upset him, and he felt a deep sense of loss, but there it was. Still, he thought to himself, maybe this is all just the yetzer hara, trying to convince me not to keep the mitzvos. He continued to keep the mitvos as meticulously as he always had.
                 A year went by. Keeping the mitzvos while not believing in Judaism in order to make sure it wasn't the yetzer hara planting thoughts in his head was starting to feel faintly ridiculous. It would soon be time for Moshe to start dating, but how could he in good conscience go out with Bais Yaakov girls when he didn't believe? In a last-ditch effort to regain his emunah, he had a friend put him in touch with a kiruv worker. The rabbi came highly recommended, and Moshe met with him a few times to discuss his issues with Yidishkeit. The rabbi was friendly and seemed genuinely concerned about Moishe, but like the kiruv books, his answers were disappointing. A week ago the rabbi had called Moshe with exciting news. He had gotten Moshe an appointment with a big rav, a real talmid chocham who would be able to answer Moishe's questions, help him see that Torah and Yiddishkeit were the emes and regain his emunah.
                At last Moshe was ushered into the rav's presence. The rav asked Moshe why he had come, and Moshe explained that he had questions of emunah that bothered him, and gave a few examples. The rav listened, then gave Moshe a bracha that his emunah shelaima should return.
                "I was hoping that you could answer some of my questions." Moshe said.
                The rav quoted the Brisker Rav and said "I answer questions not excuses." He explained, "You have decided to be porek ol, since you did not control your yetzer haras, and you found an excuse that you had 'questions', and I don't answer excuses!"
                The rav gave Moshe another beracha that he would merit teshuva shelema, and Moshe was ushered back to the waiting room.

                The above is a composite story, combining my experiences and those I have read or been told by others who have had the misfortune to be frum and skeptical. Elements of it would be recognized by anyone who has been in yeshiva and questioned ikkarei emunah. I thought about religion while none of my fellow students did, I was told by my high school principal to stop asking questions, I wanted to understand how Judaism works and how religious ideas square with the world I experience, and I found that the more I learned about the world, about history, theology, philosophy, and science, the less tenable Yiddishkeit seemed. I have read accounts by people who continued to keep the mitzvos for years after losing their faith because they were worried that their questions might be the yetzer hara trying to fool them into giving up the mitzvos.[1] Many people have related the sadness and sense of loss they felt when they realized that Judaism wasn't true and there probably wasn't a God. And many people have talked about how maddening it was after years of searching for answers to have their sincere questions dismissed as excuses to be porek ol. The conversation between Moshe and the rav is lifted nearly verbatim from an account an encounter between three questioning bochurim and Rav Chaim Kanievsky.[2]
                Many frum people believe that Judaism is obviously correct. After all, at the midrash[3] tells us that Avraham Avinu figured out that Hashem was the master of the Universe when he was only three years old! It's obvious even to a child that Hashem runs the world. Yet if it's so obvious, how could anyone go off the derech? How could anyone disbelieve when the truth is staring him in the face? Chazal answer,[4] "lo uvdo avodas kochavim ela l'hatir lahem arayos," "[people] don't worship idols except to permit to themselves sexual licentiousness." The person wants to do aveiros, but he can't because he knows Hashem will punish him. So he comes up with "questions" that allow him to convince himself that Hashem won't punish him after all, and he can do whatever he wants.
                The thesis of this book is that those who reject the tenets of Orthodox Judaism are not hedonistic cretins looking for excuses to throw off the ol hatorah and wallow in their taivos. That it is not obvious that God exists and that Judaism is true. That there are serious questions that undermine Orthodoxy, Judaism, and belief in God. That it is reasonable to doubt Judaism's tenets and act on those doubts. That doing so is more reasonable than clinging to the belief that the tenets of Orthodox Judaism are obviously true.

[1] See for one example
[2] Bruer, P. (10/21/2010). Al teirutzim ani lo onah teshuvos. HaShavua Retrieved from: 6/5/16
[3] Sepher Ha-Yashar 9:13-19 This is a polemic against idolatry rather than an argument for God's existence or the truth of Judaism.
[4] Sanhedrin 63b

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Blinded by Belief

In 1835 Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, purchased two Egyptian mummies. Inside the caskets he found fragments of papyri with Egyptian writing. He claimed that these were written by Avraham and Yosef, and produced a supposed translation of the papyri titled "The Book of Abraham." This work is considered part of Mormon scripture and informs Mormon doctrine. In 1966 the papyri were found in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When translated by Egyptologists, they proved to be standard funerary documents.[i]

When I read about the above, my first thought was, "I bet Mormons claim that Joseph Smith wasn't really translating the papyri, but that they were a means through which God revealed the Book of Abraham to him. That would solve the problem and is neatly unfalsifiable." I was right.

The official LDS website explains the discrepancy by saying, "The word translation typically assumes an expert knowledge of multiple languages. Joseph Smith claimed no expertise in any language.… The Lord did not require Joseph Smith to have knowledge of Egyptian. By the gift and power of God, Joseph received knowledge about the life and teachings of Abraham.… Joseph’s translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artifacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri." [ii] In other words, even though Joseph Smith claimed he was translating the papyri, he wasn't really translating them, but was instead receiving a revelation from God. Is there any question that this a contrivance to explain away the discrepancy between the Book of Abraham and what the papyri actually said?

This is an obvious and egregious example of people willfully ignoring the evidence against their religious beliefs, and I'm sure that any frum person would see it as such. Why then don't they see it in their own religion? In the Zohar, which uses Spanish idioms? In Tanach, which reads like ANE mythology? In many of the counterfactual beliefs held in various parts of the frum world about the age of the universe, the development of life, or the evolution of Judaism? Because when people are invested in a system of thought, explanations like the one the Mormons offer seem reasonable. They take it for granted that the Book of Abraham is true, and all that needs to be explained is how to square that with the expert's translation of the documents it's supposed to be based on. Divine revelation using the documents as a meditative focus explains all the evidence, can't be disproved, and maintains the truth of their belief. That anyone outside the system immediately sees through the explanation as an attempt to rescue an untenable belief is irrelevant. They have an explanation, and the believers can move on, their faith secure.

When evaluating the claims of our belief systems, it is imperative to try and step outside of them, as difficult as that is. It is only then that we can evaluate our beliefs as they are, instead of as props for the system we're comfortable with.

[i] Wright, L. (2013) Going Clear. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf
[ii] Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham. Retrieved from

Monday, June 20, 2016

Odds and Ends

I came across this quote from Aristotle the other day:
“The male is by nature superior and the female inferior and one rules and the other is ruled. This inequality is permanent because the woman’s deliberative faculty is without authority, like a child’s.”
When I wrote about Chazal's attitude towards women, I came up with the analogy of Chazal having seen women as children on my own. It seems I was right on the nose. This quote supports the idea that women really were seen as children in the ancient world. I tried to find the original source, but haven't been able to. If anyone were able to find where Aristotle wrote it, I would appreciate the citation.

I came across this in a lecture series on the philosophical positions of skeptical and theistic theologians:
The Fundamentalism Project, a University of Chicago research project that examined fundamentalism in different faiths, describes fundamentalism as,

"1. Fundamentalism involves a pure religious past based on a selective recovery of tradition as the basis for a present religious vision.
2. Central to fundamentalism is a struggle against secular modernity that is grounded in the belief that what is variously referred to as Secular Humanism or "the West" is a threat to religious identity. It is religiously imperative to resist this threat and conform to God's will.[i]"
Sound familiar?

Lastly, I've been working on the book I proposed. I have 99 pages of loosely-organized notes (which keeps growing), and I'm working on sorting them into an outline that I can turn into the book. I was wondering is anyone would be interested in lending a hand. I could use help in four areas:

1. Proofreading for spelling and grammar mistakes, for clarity, and for possible counter-arguments. I took a kiruv book apart once, and that is informing the way I'm writing. I want, as much as possible, to anticipate the responses of the frum reader and prevent a similar dissection of this book.

2. Research in  general sources. There are a lot of ideas rattling around in my head which would be a lot more authoritative if I could source them. I regret not making notes on all the books I've read over the years, but it's too late now, and Google only helps so much.

3. Research in traditional Jewish sources. I was never the greatest lamdan, and it's been a looong time since I opened a gemara.

4. Help with the norms and arguments of segments of the frum world I'm not familiar with. The book is necessarily written from my point of view, and so primarily addresses the Yeshivish community I grew up in, but I would like to touch on other hashkafos as well, especially those of the Chassidishe world.

While I daydream about the book being a success and finding fame and fortune, in reality I don't expect to make much, if anything off of it. The plan is to make it available for free online as a PDF and for purchase as a print version at slightly more than whatever the printing company charges to print it. Consequently, if anyone is interested in helping, it would be strictly as a volunteer.

If you are interested, please send me an email with name and the area(s)  you'd like to help with, and I'll get in touch with you as things come up I need information on.

[i] Roberts, T. (2009). Skeptics and Believers: Religious Debate in the Western Intellectual Tradition

Monday, May 30, 2016

God Vanishes in a Puff of Logic

Renee Descartes, after proving the existence of God to his satisfaction, uses God to get himself out of the radically skeptical corner he painted himself into with his cogito. He reasons that God is perfect, and a perfect Being would not deceive him, as deception is a form of imperfection. Therefore he can deduce that the world he experiences is real and not a product of God deceiving his senses.

I think that the same line of reasoning can be used to prove that God does not exist:

1. God is perfect.
2. Deception is a form of imperfection, and a perfect Being would not deceive us.
3. Therefore a perfect being would not deceive us by creating us in such a way that we would perceive things that are not true.
3a. AND a perfect Being would not lie to us.
4. What we perceive often contradicts what God told us.
C. God doesn't exist. QED

I really enjoy this argument. There is something satisfying about turning the Ontological Argument on its head and defining God out of existence. And it reminds me of the argument from Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy that the Babel Fish is so obviously a proof for God's existence that it proves He doesn't exist. Unfortunately, I don't think the argument is sound.

Premise one may not be true, and the argument only disproves the existence of a perfect God. Premise two may not be true, and perfection may include the ability to do all things, including to deceive. Premise five may not be true, and is in fact the subject of a lot of apologetics that attempt to reconcile religion and science. I'm afraid that the whole thing feels like sophistry. Still fun though.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Plato's Midrash

I was listening to lecture about Aristophanes when the lecturer brought up Aristophanes' role in Plato's Symposium. The philosophers who had gathered for the event were discussing love. Aristophanes, fed up with their over-intellectualizing, makes a ridiculously over-the-top speech about how when the gods had first created people, there hadn't been two genders, as there are now. The first people were round, androgynous creatures and were essentially two people stuck together back-to-back. They were enormous, and rolled around the world, looking to fight with the gods. The gods separated each creature into two people, but allowed the halves to find each other again. Today people still look for their missing half, and love is gift from the gods.

This story struck me as familiar. There's a midrash that describes Adam Harishon in exactly the same way:

Rabbi Samuel b. Nahman said: At the time that the Holy One, Blessed Be He created Man, He created him as an Androgynos.Resh Lakish said that at the time that [Adam] was created, he was made with two faces, and [God] sliced him and gave him two backs, a female one and a male one, as it saysAnd He took from his sides,[2] as it says, [3]R. Berachya and R. Chalbo and R. Samuel b. Nahman said: At the time that the Holy One, Blessed be He created man, He created him from one end of the earth until the other, filling the whole world. He created [Man] from the east to the west. From where do we learn [that man was created from the east to the west]? As it says,  of the earth to the other]? As it says [4]And from where do we learn that before.[5] And from where [do we learn that man was created from one end Adam filled the space of the whole earth? As it says, [6]

Not only does the midrash describe a  two-sided giant proto-human, it even uses the same Greek word as Aristophanes, "androgynous," to describe it.

There are so many interesting things about this.
  • When I learned this midrash, no one mentioned Aristophanes. Like me, most frum people learn the midrash and have no idea that they are reading something that originated in Greek philosophy.  
  • It's yet another example that shows that the Jewish communities of the past were influenced by the cultures around them, so much so that elements of those cultures made it into what many people consider the Divinely-inspired, transcendentally meaningful explanations of Tanach.
  • It proves that extant ideas have been read back into tanach. Plato's Symposium predates this midrash by six hundred years, and  two-faced Adam is brought up by Resh Lakish, who had been immersed in Roman culture. There's little doubt that the idea came from the Symposium. Yet they manage to find proof-texts to hang the idea on.
  • Perhaps most interesting of all, the amoraim quoted in the midrash didn't get the joke! Aristophanes was being deliberately ridiculous to make a point, and these amoraim took him so seriously that 1700 years later, little kids in yeshiva learning parshas Bereishis learn that Adam was originally an androgynous two-sided creature.

It's also notable that in Aristophanes' version, there are three types of creatures, double-sided male, double-sided female, and male-female. After separation, each was motivated by love to seek it's other half, and Aristophanes says that this is all good, love is a gift from the gods, and we should leave it at that. The midrash conspicuously leaves out the part about double-sided males and females. Maybe because it doesn't fit with the narrative in Bereishis about Adam and Chava, maybe because of its positive attitude towards homosexuality, or both. 

Monday, May 2, 2016

Metaphysical Amiratzim

I recently heard an interview with James Flynn, the namesake and discoverer of the Flynn Effect. While doing research on intelligence, Flynn noticed that IQ tests have to be renormed every few years. Tables for scoring IQ tests are derived by administering the test to thousands of subjects. For convenience (it makes the math easier), the average result is given a score of 100. IQ tests measure people's performance not against some objective standard of intelligence, but against the average performance of people in their cohort, the people in their age group in their era. The tests have to be periodically renormed because average scores keep drifting upwards.

What this means is that if someone were tested today and scored with the tables used in the '40s, he would score as a genius! It's nice to think that we're all getting smarter, but reversing that experiment exposes an absurdity. If we were to take a current IQ test back in time and test someone from our grandparents' generation as a young man or woman, they would score as profoundly retarded. Obviously, the generation that created the first computers and jets was not made up of people who were not intelligent enough to  care for themselves.

So what was happening here? Flynn found that in some areas that IQ tests measured, like math skills and vocabulary, there was little to no change in the scores between cohorts. What changed was people's performance on sections that required abstract thinking. People kept getting better at it. The rising scores didn't reflect a change in people's intelligence, it reflected the diffusion through our culture of a particular way of thinking. People in the past tended to think concretely, about things that effected them directly. Not because they were intellectually incapable of thinking abstractly, but because they had no reason to, and were unlikely to ever encounter abstract modes of thinking. They didn't have the intellectual tools for it.

I had heard all of this before. What caught my attention in the interview was when Flynn pointed out that there had always been a small minority of people throughout history who could think abstractly, and listed talmudists among his examples. Could this explain the gemara's contempt for the am haaretz? Imagine yourself as an amora, intelligent, educated, and so comfortable with thinking in abstractions that you don't even realize that's what you're doing. You interact with a farmer who is illiterate, ignorant, and, it seems to you, unable to even think. Sure, he can design and build buildings and farming equipment, come up with clever ways to increase his crop yields and keep away pests, and other practical, hands-on things. But ask him to apply logic to a pair of pesukim to see how they are similar and what we can learn about what is discussed in one from what is discussed in the other, and he's completely lost. It's not just that he can't do it, he doesn't even understand what it is you want him to do.  Of course you think he's an idiot.

The farmer isn't an idiot. He's just lacking a particular set of tools. It's like asking a guy who's never seen a screwdriver to assemble a piece of furniture, and concluding he's mechanically inept because he thinks the pointy things with ridges are badly-made nails. He won't be able to put the thing together. He won't even understand what it is you want him to do. You hit nails, you don't turn them. Everyone knows that! But show him what a screwdriver is, explain to him how screws work, and give him a chance to practice, and he could end up working for IKEA.

This all came to mind over Yom Tov when I saw this sign at a keilim mikvah in Brooklyn.

My initial reaction was to ridicule whoever had written the sign. Tevilas Keilim is not a metaphysical or mystical concept? You don't get much more metaphysical and mystical than dunking clean utensils in dirty magic sky-water to wash off the taint of possible involvement in worship of other gods. Here, in red and white, was proof that the frum community was made up of theological morons, philosophical amiratzim who don't recognize a metaphysical ritual when it stares them in the face.

Then it occurred to me that perhaps they weren't stupid. They just didn't have the intellectual tools to see their own religion as metaphysics. And why should they? The wider questions of theology and metaphysics, and the similarities and mechanics of different religions and mythos didn't affect their day-to-day lives. To them, "metaphysical" probably means something like, "Kabalistic."  The sign is probably meant to convey that toiveling keilim is halacha and not a kabbalistic minhag. These same people, complacent in their ignorance of theological terms and lacking the ability to recognize a mystical ritual meant to affect metaphysical impurity might, if given the tools, become adept at thinking about religion.

Perhaps that is another reason to put together a book explaining why people might conclude Orthodox Judaism isn't true. To provide the tools and motivation to even the devoutly religious members of Orthodox society to develop an appreciation of a different way of thinking about their religion. One that understands that "metaphysical"  can include not only those things they consider esoteric but also things that they take for granted, like tummah, avodah zara, and God.

That's almost certainly a grandiose overstatement of the effect of anything I might write, but I'll take motivation where I can get it.

On a related note, I have been working on an outline for the book I proposed a few months ago. It's slow, but so far I have a sixteen page outline, and it continues to grow. When I finish the outline I'll clean it up and post the basic format (Chapters, headings, subheadings, specific topics) for suggestions.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Better Angels of Our Nature

I recently finished reading "The Better Angels of Our Nature" by Steven Pinker, and I highly recommend it. It's just short of 700 pages, so it took me a while to get through, but it was never boring and was packed full of fascinating insights into why people are violent - and why they are less violent now than in the past.

The thesis of the book is that violence has declined steadily over the history of civilizations. Despite the widespread belief that we are living in exceptionally violent times, we are in fact living in exceptionally peaceful times. Wars today kill more people (in whole numbers) than did wars in the past, but there are far more people and far fewer wars than there used to be. As a percentage of the population killed, even the cataclysms of the 20th century, the world wars, barely make the list of the greatest episodes of violence in history. The author documents how violence has declined across the board, from warfare to the justice system (we no longer have public executions or break people's arms and legs, thread them through a wagon wheel, and leave them to die) to the way we discipline our children, to our recognition of the rights of other people.

When people decry the abysmal morality of our society, they are usually talking about sex. (They're completely wrong about that, but that's a different post.) Pinker has convincingly shown that in terms of violence and recognizing the rights of others not to be harmed, there has never been a more moral time.

If I were motivated, I could have written a dozen posts inspired by this book. Instead, I'll just write about a couple of things I bookmarked.

The first speaks to the often-heard idea that morality comes from religion. For most of history, it was the norm for heretics and apostates to be tortured and killed. This wasn't cruelty for its own sake,  but was the logical result of the belief that heretics would suffer an eternity in Hell, and could be saved from this fate by confessing their sins and recanting their heresy. As terrible as torture was, it was better to make the heretic suffer for a few days or weeks now and so motivate him to repent than it was for him to suffer even worse torment for all of eternity. As for someone who spread heresy, he had to die to prevent him from causing others to be damned. Pinker makes the point that this logic still holds today, yet people in the West are horrified at the idea of torturing or killing heretics. While there is some cross influence between religious and moral beliefs, it is for the most part their morals that inform their religious beliefs, not the other way around.

The second is a group of studies about violent offenders. It was found that these people's brains are different from typical people. The area of the brain that controls impulses and modulates behavior is smaller in criminally violent people than it is in typical people. If a typical person was involved in an accident that damaged his brain so that he was no longer able to control his impulses, would we hold him morally responsible for his violent actions? I don't think we would. Then what about people whose brains naturally develop that way? How can we hold them morally responsible? And yet, the American justice system is  structured to be punitive rather than rehabilitative.

Similarly, it was found that people's capacity for self-control could be boosted by feeding them sugar. The pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for higher functions like self control, burns a lot of energy. Controlling yourself literally requires energy, and the more you do it, the less energy you have available and the more difficult it becomes. Add energy, and you're ability to control yourself shoots up. In other words, you're best prepared to resist eating a chocolate bar after you've eaten it. As I've said many times before, if there is a God, He's a practical joker with a nasty sense of humor.

The last piece I'll mention is a study that, "looked at twenty-five civilizations in Asia and Europe and found that the ones that were stratified into hereditary classes favored myth, legend, and hagiography and discouraged history, social science, natural science, [and] biography." Does that sound familiar?  The study's author suggests that this is because it is not in the interest of those in the controlling classes to have scholars uncover the truth about the past (or present) and cast doubt on their descent from heroes and gods. Or in the case of the frum world, pious holy men and superhumanly adept scholars.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

What is Chometz?

When I learned about Pesach as a kid, I was taught that when flour and water are mixed together the mixture begins to rise after eighteen minutes, and this makes it chometz. The implication was that this was a physical change. Before eighteen minutes the dough had not yet begun to rise, and so it was still kosher l'Pesach. After eighteen minutes, it was chometz.

The problem here is that this isn't the way the world works. Yeast is a naturally-occurring parasite that lives on grains and other produce. When it is wet it metabolizes starches and sugar to make more of itself, giving off gasses in the process. It is these gasses that make bread rise. Eighteen is a magic number in Judaism, but yeast doesn't know that. Fermentation begins as soon as the water and flour are mixed together, not eighteen minutes later.

The problem can be solved by reclassifying chometz as a legal rather than a descriptive definition. Dough becomes chometz after eighteen minutes because that's the rule rather than because of some physical change. This sidesteps the empirical problem, but leaves two others.

The first is that this wasn't the original understanding. When the halacha was first formulated, people didn't know about microorganisms like yeast or how their lifecycles affect our baking. They just knew that if you mixed flour and water and left it alone long enough in a warm place, it would rise, and that by adding a bit of already-risen dough to a new batch, you could make it rise faster. Why this happened was a mystery. It wasn't until the invention of the microscope in the 1600s that it was discovered that there were tiny things on grain, and it wasn't until the mid-1800s that it was understood that these things were alive and were what made bread rise.

Given their lack of modern knowledge, it was reasonable for the formulators of the halachos of chometz to assume that it took some time for whatever it was that made bread rise to start working. If you watch a batch of dough, it certainly seems that it takes a while before anything happens. The importance of eighteen led them to use that number, and for millennia it was thought that dough doesn't begin to rise until eighteen minutes after the water and flour are mixed together. It is only in the last hundred and fifty years, when we learned how it really works, that it became necessary to reclassify chometz as a legal rather than a physical definition.

The second problem is that it makes the definition of chometz arbitrary. There is no discernible difference between a batch of dough that has been sitting for seventeen minutes and one that has been sitting for nineteen minutes. Instead of something real, chometz becomes a rule in a game we're playing called "Judaism." It's no longer that chometz is a different kind of thing than non-chometz, and we avoid that thing during Pesach because the nature of the holiday is such that chometz affects us differently than it does the rest of the year. Instead, chometz and non-chometz are separated only by  the rules of the game. They are the same thing, but the rules say that after eighteen minutes we call dough "chometz" and treat it as if it were different than non-chometz.

Some try to save the sense of chometz and non-chometz really being different types of things by shunting the difference off into the metaphysical world. Although here, in the physical world, we don't see a difference, in the olam haemes there is a profound spiritual difference between them. Putting aside the oddity of people who decry the corrosive effects of "Greek wisdom" embracing a Platonic conception of the cosmos, this is obviously a post-hoc attempt to save the reality of the distinction between chometz and non-chometz. Right up until we knew differently, it was assumed that there was a real physical difference. As soon as we found out how fermentation really works, the difference was shunted off into an inaccessible metaphysical world where it is safe from empirical investigation.

One of the first major figures to change the underpinnings of halachos from physical to metaphysical was the Maharal, who lived through the beginning of the Scientific Revolution in the mid-1500s. That this trend emerged just as we began to discover how the world really works should make it obvious that it was not so much a revelation about the true nature of halacha as it was an attempt to keep halacha from becoming irrelevant as it's real-world justifications were cut out from under it.

For most of its history, the halachos of chometz were thought to rest on a real difference between chometz and non-chometz. They were different kinds of stuff, and so it made sense to treat them differently. As soon as it was discovered that's not so, chometz became just a rule in the Judaism game, weakly bolstered by the unknowable assertion that metaphysically, they really are different. This is the danger that science poses to religion. Rules that were once simply a reflection of reality become arbitrary, and those who want them to be more than that are left to petulantly insist that their game is real after all,  in an inaccessible higher reality that small-minded materialists refuse to acknowledge just because there is no reason to posit its existence other than to keep religious rules from becoming arbitrary.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Women's Role

I read an article today that tried to explain why people in some other cultures have such a hard time with the idea that women should be treated as equal to men. The author pointed out that until recently everyone felt that way. He compared the way women were seen in Western society in the nineteenth century to the way we see pets today, and pointed out that the idea that women should have a say in running things (like by voting) seemed as absurd to people then as suggesting we allow dogs to vote would seem to us now.

While reading I realized that the same could be said of halacha. I think a better analogy than pets is children. Halacha treats women like ten-year-olds. Like children, women are people, and we care about them. Men may love them, be concerned about them, genuinely want them to be happy, even go to great lengths to ensure they have good lives. But the idea that they can care for themselves, should have any kind of authority, or can serve on a court or as a reliable witness is absurd. We would never think of appointing a ten-year-old as a judge. That's ridiculous. And we can understand why something like having a woman lain is an embarrassment to the men present. It's just like if, today, the only person in shul who could read was an ordinary ten-year-old.

We can trust women for some things, just like you can trust a ten-year-old with some limited responsibilities. And we can praise them for attributes particular to their position, telling women that they are more spiritual and closer to God in the same way that we praise a ten-year-old's childlike innocence and fascination with things that we have become too jaded to enjoy. But ultimately, naashim daaten kalos. Children must listen to their parents for their own good. Children and parents have different roles, and for a child to act as a parent, to have equal say in making rules, to have the authority in running the house, etc. is absurd.

We don't make rules for children or keep them from adult roles because we hate them. On the contrary, it is because we love them and care about them that we restrict them to child-appropriate roles. And the framers of halacha weren't misogynistic in the way that those who now try to restrict women's roles are. They genuinely believed, as did nearly everyone throughout history, that women are ten-year-olds.  

In the cultural milieu in which halacha developed, right up until a few decades ago, women were seen by the men in charge as ten-year-olds. Keep that in mind, and halacha's attitude towards women makes perfect sense.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

They Don't Tell Stories Like That About You and Me

The title is a clever line often heard in the frum world when someone questions the accuracy of fantastic gadol stories. (It seems itwas originally applied to the Chofetz Chaim by a lawyer.) It's meant to imply that even if the story isn't completely true, the fact that such stories are told indicate the greatness of the person they are told about.

I came across a list of the supposed accomplishments of North Korea's late leader, Kim Jong Il. Among them:

  • His birth was foretold by a swallow and heralded by a double rainbow. When he was born, a new star appeared in the night sky.
  • The first time he picked up a golf club, he shot 11 holes-in-one. He then decided to retire from the sport for ever.
  •  Kim has the ability to alter the weather simply through the power of thought.
  •  He had learned to walk at just 3 weeks and was talking at 8 weeks.
  •  As a junior high school pupil in Pyongyang, he corrected and chastised his teachers for their incorrect interpretations of history.

Are these stories true? I don't know, but they don't tell stories like that about you and me.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Monopoly on "Religious"

It is accepted as a truism within the frum world that only frum Jews are really religious. Those Jews who belong to other (presumed illegitimate) streams of Judaism are, at best, fooling themselves. No one who isn't frum really has a connection to being Jewish. It might be possible to maintain this illusion when most frum people had little contact with non-frum Jews in a Jewish setting. With the internet, that has changed.

I came across this video while browsing through Youtube.

It's called My Mothers Sabbath Candles. It was written by Jack Yellen in 1951 and is sung here by the Barry Sisters, Yiddish theater stars who broke into mainstream recording. Neither Yellen nor the Barry Sisters were what we would now consider frum. Yet my first thought when I listened to it was that it wouldn't be out of place on a CD released by a frum singer today.

I scrolled through the video suggestions Youtube generates on the side of the page, and I found this version, sung by Avraham Freid. Not exactly part of an album, and it's part of a kiruv campaign, but I think it makes the point.

I also came across this, which for some reason I found funny.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

A Reasonable Doubt

I was curious, so I Googled the book from the ad in the previous post, "Emunah: A Refresher Course." I found a website for the "Ani Maamin Project," which, though not well-developed, led me to a couple of videos on Youtube of shiurim given by the book's author. I think that the author, Rabbi Dovid Sapirman, coincidentally is one of the people I was sent to talk to when I started asking awkward questions in high school.

 I spent a number of afternoons over the course of few months talking with him, and he gave me some of his tapes to listen to. I remember being impressed by some of what he said, like prophecies that had come true and his argument that we see an Oral Torah is necessary, because even the Kaarites, who reject TSBP, had to use TSBP's definition of tefillin because the Torah's description in inadequate.  They just wore their black leather boxes between their eyes, because they interpreted "between your eyes" literally. Ha ha, those silly Kaarites, not realizing how foolish they looked using TSPB's interpretation of what tefillin are, and then wearing them wrong. (It's too bad for his argument that Kaarites don't actually wear teffillin at all.) Other stuff I was less impressed with, like his insistence on an unbroken mesorah despite the incidents in Navi of the Torah being rediscovered, or his failure to address what was then my central question, the circularity of knowing that Hashem was good because the Torah said He was good, and trusting what the Torah said was reliable because it was written by Hashem, Who is good.

I watched a couple of his videos, and the arguments that I was impressed with almost twenty years ago don't hold up.

His shiur was an hour of empty rhetoric, stories to make the audience feel good about themselves, the never addressed assumption that traditional Jewish sources are authoritative, and subtle and not-so-subtle implications that we are right and everyone else is wrong. For instance, he spoke about various trends that were once popular but now (at least according to him) seem silly. He specifically spoke about idolatry (getting the way that the ancients thought of idols completely wrong), and  more or less outright said that the same way we think of idol worship as silly, in the future people will think that accepting what science has to say about evolution and the development of the world is silly. He also told a lovely story about a Charieidi man's encounter with a kibbutznik with long hair who Rabbi Sapirman described as "safik chaya safik beheima, safik ish safik isha."

Despite the painfulness of some parts of the shiur, it was interesting to be transported back into that world and mindset again.

Rabbi Sapirman's video led me to a shiur by someone from Aish on the same subject. His was better, in that he made actual arguments, albeit never explicitly and all in the context of stories about celebrities he'd met. They were all the bad arguments we've all heard before. Pascal's Wager, the Kuzari Argument, equating the claim of millions of people witnessing matan torah (which comes from the Torah, a single source) with the claim of millions of people witnessing WWII (which comes from millions of sources such as letters, diaries, newspaper and newsreel accounts, and official documents), and so on.

This got me thinking. I should write an anti-kiruv book. Not a book against kiruv, but a book that is the opposite of kiruv books (does anyone have a better way to say that than, "anti-kiruv?). A book that works in the opposite direction of most kiruv books, and systematically goes from Orthodox Judaism to Judaism to God/religion in general to pragmatic arguments for being religious, and shows at each level why it is reasonable to be skeptical. The point wouldn't be to convince people to not be frum, but to show people who were skeptical that they're not crazy, that they're  not just evil kofrim controlled by their taivos, and that what they've been thinking is reasonable and defensible.

Then I realized that a book like that could never get published. The potential audience is tiny. And even if it could get published, I'd have to publish under a pseudonym or risk my acceptance in my community. While no one in my community cares what anyone thinks, I suspect that they might object to someone writing a book that attacks their whole belief system. Using a pseudonym means no promoting the book, which again means that it could never get published.

I could do it as a blog, one where I would write the book and post it section by section as I go along. The question there is whether it's worth the effort. Would anyone read it? Maybe if it was publicized on Facebook, but there I run into the anonymity problem again.  


Sunday, February 14, 2016

Frum Newspapers

My parents are visiting for the weekend, and they brought with them some of the frum New York newspapers. I flipped through a few over Shabbos, and a few things jumped out at me. The first was this ad:
Which reminds me of this famous New Yorker cover:

Then there was this:

Notice anything? (Hint: I'd almost expect a mechitza in the third-to-last line.)

There was this ad for a book that's be a must-read if it lives up to it's claims:

It has me debating whether I should spend the twenty dollars to check it out. Can you imagine, incontrovertible evidence for Maamed Har Sinia, and a peek into "evolutionists'" krum thinking!

Lastly, there was a letter-to-the-editor from someone who had recently gotten a subscription thanking the paper for it's good work and saying how woderful it was to have a paper in his home "with the right hashkafa." Perhaps I'm reading too much into this person's wrod choice, but he didn't write, "With my hashkafa," or, "With the Yeshivish hashkafa," he wrote, "The right hashkafa." Implying that all other hashkafaos are the wrong hashkafa.

It's good to have a reminder every now and then of why I moved out of New York.