Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Science & Torah & Rabbi Carmy

I saw a funny comment on Hirhurim today. Dilbert wrote, regarding R Carmy’s rather vague article on Science & Torah:

Rabbi Carmy's editorial was disappointing to me on a number of fronts. I have long been an admirer of his, but this editorial was long on verbage, and short on substance. I don’t have it in front of me to quote specifically, but basically he wrote that he didn't agree with the ban, but understood and empathized with the rationale behind it. Even worse was his admission that he was not totally familiar with the specifics of the bans, not having read them all.

I would have hoped that the editor of the pre-eminent English language journal of Modern orthodox thought would have roused himself to a stirring defense of science co-existing with Torah. At the very least, defending the hashkafa that using science is a religiously valid view point. Or maybe even opining on the process by which the bans appeared. He did none of those. Instead, he basically said that one shouldn't think too hard about the difficulties that science poses, and that he understands, if not agrees with the motive to suppress these opinions. It was VERY disappointing.

Wow. Maybe R Carmy is smarter than I thought? No stirring defense of Science AND Torah? One shouldn’t think too hard about this stuff? Maybe R Carmy has been reading Not The Godol Hador!

It’s funny how my opinions have changed 180 degrees since last year. Originally I saw the Science & Torah reconciliation people as the guys with the answers. Now I realize that they have no clue. At best all they are really doing is trying to keep Orthodoxy open to the full range of Rishonim (which is not a bad thing in itself). Unfortunately all the Rishonim in the world aren’t going to help you with reconciling modern Science with Breishis, since the two stories are fundamentally different, and I don’t recall seeing any Rishonim say that Breishis 1-11 is mythology, or even that the Mabul was (gasp!) local. Dilbert, Y Aharon, Harry Maryles, Gil, Rabbi Slifkin and all the other ‘Science is okay!’ types are simply not facing reality. They want to have their cake and eat it, but it can’t happen. In fact, they seem to be as much about avoiding reality as the Chareidim are.

You guys want to accept modern science? Then it’s goodbye Orthodox Judaism, at least as currently defined. You have the cojones like R Louis Jacobs zt"l to go redefine Orthodoxy? No, I didn’t think so. So what do you expect? The Chareidim are unfortunately correct – modern Science IS incompatible with Orthodoxy, from any plausible viewpoint. Unless you want to tell me that Myth/Moshol is 100% A-OK? No, I didn’t think so. Oh wait, you have faith that the answers are out there, we just haven't found them yet.

Sure! Could be, could be.

Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Proof for Judaism?

Seems that my last few posts got a lot of people rather upset, especially the way I just took it for granted that there’s no good evidence for religion, and our beliefs in religion are based entirely on faith (a.k.a. wishful thinking).

So why did I come to this conclusion? Didn’t I myself spend many months arguing with the skeptics, and writing mega chizuk posts which contained all sorts of arguments proving Judaism and the existence of God? Yes, I did. But ultimately I found my opponents arguments more convincing than my own.

However, you may decide differently. In the interests of fairness, I will present all those arguments again (in summary form only), together with their counter-arguments, and you can be the judge which is more plausible.

1. The Mesorah Proof

The beliefs of Judaism have been passed down father to son for three thousand years, in an unbroken and traceable chain of tradition. We know our fathers wouldn’t lie to us, therefore it must be true.

Counter Argument
Many (conflicting) religious traditions are passed down father to son, yet are untrue. Parents don’t deliberately lie, however people can be misled, and myths grow over time. To claim that the great Gedolim of each generation passed these beliefs down so they must be true is circular reasoning: If the beliefs are not true then the great Gedolim are not so great.

2. The Sinai Proof

Judaism is the only religion to claim a mass revelation, i.e. Sinai in front of 2.5 million Jews. How could anyone make such a story up, and convince people it happened to their ancestors? And if it was possible to make up such a grand story, how come no other religion tried to do this, but only have revelation stories in front of a small group of people?

Counter Argument
It’s true that Sinai is a fairly unique claim. However myths form over many centuries, and it’s entirely possible that the claim grew over the years. We don’t know why other religions didn’t try the same claim, but that’s no proof of anything, except for the fact that the Jewish claim is the most audacious. Also, claims of miracles tend to decrease over the millennia, as people get wiser and less superstitious. Possibly 3,000 years ago you could make a mass revelation claim, 2,000 years ago you could make a resurrection claim, and 500 years ago you could make a Maggid claim. Nowadays you can’t even claim a talking fish without Rabbi Adlerstein publicly announcing his skepticism.

3. The Brilliant Talmud / Rishonim / Acharonim Proof Type A

Once you see the brilliance of the Gemarah / Rishonim / R Akiva Eiger, you will see how such a system can only be divine.

None of this is all that brilliant, it’s just years of complexity added upon complexity, creating a confusing mess which finely trained minds like to ponder. Objectively speaking, Science is way more brilliant and profound. Only people brainwashed in the system think it’s so brilliant. Muslims think the Koran is mindblowing too, and Mormons think the Book of Mormon is incredible.

4. The Brilliant Talmud / Rishonim / Acharonim Proof Type B

Chazal / Rishonim / R Akiva Eiger / R Moshe were all amazingly brilliant people. They believed in Judaism, so it must be true.

Counter Argument
Smart people exist in every faith. Smart people are good at justifying their childhood indoctrinated beliefs with smart aguments. Some very smart people throughout history believed some very strange things. There are plenty of smart religious people in Christianity and Islam too.

5. The History Proof

Jewish history is unique. We have survived thousands of years, incredible persecutions, we are always on the news, and we are a tiny percentage of the world’s population. In addition our contribution to society and effect on civilization has been amazing. All this has been noted with wonder by many people (including quite a few anti-semites) over the last two thousand years. Our survival and success is inexplicable, God is the only answer.

Counter Argument
Jewish history is unique, but so is many other people’s history, in other ways. We have survived many adverse circumstances, but a combination of culture, laws, non integration into society and other factors can explain our survival. Also our emphasis on education has paid enormous dividends. Our survival can be explained in natural ways.

6. The Experience Proof

Once you experience Shabbos (or Learning, or Kugel) you will see that it must be true.

Counter Argument
All religions offer great experiences, as do drugs and alcohol. Experiential emotions prove nothing, except that whatever you are experiencing has the power to create deep emotions.

7. The God Proof

We can prove there must be a First Cause i.e. God. Judaism was the first religion to promote this idea, and it has since spread worldwide. God would want us to know about Him and his mission, therefore it makes sense that Judaism is the one true religion. Also, all the other religions are just derivative of Judaism, or else don’t make any major claims about God at all, or are just idolatry. Judaism is the original and still the only pure monotheistic faith.

Counter Argument
God’s existence has not been sufficiently proven. Even if you hold it has, it doesn’t follow that Judaism is from God. Jews may have intuited God’s existence correctly, but the rest of the religion could be man made. God might even be displeased with the religion, for focusing on the wrong things, and incorrectly claiming unique status.

8. The Halachah Proof

Halachah works amazingly well to create decent people and communities, and always has done. Such an effective system can only have come from God.

Counter Argument
Only religious Jews are convinced that religious Jews are so great. Everyone else sees a community like any other, possibly with lower crime levels and stronger family ties, but that is easily explainable sociologically. Plus when you factor in the increased racism and intolerance, and all the other problems endemic in Chareidi society, including behavior of the Gedolim, it doesn't look so great.

9. The Prophecy Proof

The Torah correctly foretells the various churbanot and tragedies. It must be true.

Counter Argument
Depends when it was written. If it was written during or after the first churban, this is not so amazing. Could also be a lucky guess, many ANE texts contain dire warnings and curses.

10. The Discovery Proofs

Various clever and non intuitive proofs involving codes, the shmittah year, camels & hyraxes or whatever.

Counter Argument
Most (all?) of these don’t really work if you look into them. Others are just sophistry.

11. The Convergence Proof

While none of the above taken by themselves are strong enough proof, when you add them all together it tells a very powerful story. The original monotheistic religion survives against all odds, has many prophecies fulfilled, makes an incredible contribution to society and is still front page news 3,000 years later. So amazing it can only mean one thing. It’s all true.

Counter Argument
None of these proofs on their own amount to anything. Zero plus zero is still zero. There’s nothing here.

Personally I do actually find a few of these somewhat convincing, and taken all together they do tell a good story, certainly a better story than all the other religions.

But is that proof enough?

In my next post I will present a summary of all the proofs against Judaism, together with their counter arguments. Then we can judge which set of proofs are more convincing, all from a strictly rational perspective of course. If you have faith, then none of this is in any way relevant.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Are Kiruv Workers Evil?

One of the Lakewood chevrah emailed me recently to complain that some of the skeptics are evil, since they intentionally try and ‘convert’ people from Orthodoxy to Skepticism. Not only that, but death threats against these kind of skeptics are a good thing (presumably he meant fake ones), because the 'kiruv' skeptics deserve some harassment.

WITHOUT getting into the discussion of whether this accusation is actually true or not about certain skeptics, I wondered if his claim that it was ‘evil’ behavior is valid. So let’s discuss this.

We all support and approve of (Orthodox) Kiruv organizations. We actively go and try and mekarev people to Orthodoxy. We do Outreach.

Is this evil?

We assume the person will be happier if they are Orthodox. We assume they will have a more fulfilled life. And of course we assume that they will get a better olam habah. On the other hand, I personally know of BT’s who are miserable, who don’t like being Orthodox and are now stuck (usually because their spouse is Orthodox). So, we can’t necessarily guarantee a happier life. We can’t really guarantee Olam Habaah either, since only God can do that. In fact, we can’t actually guarantee anything at all, since we all agree that fundamentally our religion rests on faith. Without proof, nothing can be rationally guaranteed.

Not only that, but making someone religious will require them to keep Halachah. This includes Yehoreg v’al yaavor on Giluy Aroyos and Avodah
Zoroh. Hence we could be influencing someone to give up their life instead of bowing down to an idol or something like that. Yes, I know this is far fetched, but the possibility is there. In fact, a simpler example would be someone who gets religious, gets Zionistic too, and goes off to live in the West Bank, thinking they are fulfilling God’s wish of a greater Israel, and then they get blown up by terrorists.

If Judaism is true, then of course this is all correct and good. However if it isn’t, then this is all bad. Very bad indeed if you get blown up for no good reason.

Now let’s look at the (theoretical) 'kiruv' skeptics. Their belief is that religion is all bogus. Sure, it can give you a nice lifestyle, but ultimately it’s all fake. They believe that the world would be a better place without religion, and they believe that each individual would lead a truer, more fulfilled life without religion. They believe that religion has perpetrated many evils. Hence they do ‘kiruv’ to their version of the truth.

If the claims of the skeptics are true, then this is all correct and good. However if it isn’t true, how bad is it really? They are not persuading people to go risk their lives for their religion, or for a distant country. They are not advocating anyone to give up their lives instead of bowing down to an idol. Yes, they advocate dropping Torah & Mitzvot, but they still advocate morality, which is of course one of the most important things anyway.

So who is really evil here?

An objective assessment leads me to conclude that if the skeptic 'kiruv' workers are evil, then the Orthodox kiruv workers are doubly so. Do we really want to conclude that kiruv workers are evil? And if (fake) death threats against skeptic 'kiruv' workers are okay, then are death threats against Orthodox kiruv workers more okay?

What if your non religious child was mekareved by Aish, ended up in Israel and ended up dead. Does that mean that Aish killed your child, by filling his head with nonsensical beliefs (from your perspective) ? Should Aish be charged with second degree murder? I guess so, according to the Lakewood chevrah.

How can anyone possibly claim that skeptic 'kiruv' workers are evil, yet advocate Orthodox kiruv? The mind boggles.


The skeptics respond:

You want to talk about problems with kiruv, talk about how they sell it as the solution to people's emotional problems, which rarely actually get fixed. Talk about how they dishonestly portray the plausibility of their claims in regards to evidence. Talk about how they don't talk about the stigma BTs have in the frum world, despite many people joining specifically for the emphasis on marriage. Talk about how they don't discuss the very high ex-BT rate, and the difficulty people have recovering from being a BT. Don't talk about Aish getting someone blown up. That's just stupid. If a newly skeptical ex-Orthodox Jew gets killed in a car accident on Shabbat do you blame Spinoza?

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Weekly Mussar, Machshavah & Chizuk Drashah for the Orthodox Conservative Chareidi Kehillah

Rabbosai, last week, some of us felt our emunah slipping away as we contemplated the upcoming Teaneck Gedolim Show, starring Rabbis Feldman, Salomon and Shachter. Each of these had recently written (or signed their names to) announcements of quite stunning stupidity, and of questionable ethics too.

How could it be that the Gedolim, the ones who learn the most Torah, the ones who know the most Halchah, could be so clueless? Isn’t that strong evidence that the whole concept of Torah is flawed? Isn’t that strong evidence that the whole of Orthodoxy is flawed? Isn’t that strong evidence that the whole of Judaism is flawed?

I wrote the following to a respected acquaintance of mine:

Of all the things that bother me (DH, Science etc) the Gedolim bother me the most. If Torah is the best and learning Torah is the best then these people should be the best. Not perfect, but the best. But I just can't see it.

His reply came quickly:

It used to bother me too, but that was before I realized that "the gedolim" is propaganda and crap.

As for learning Torah and being the best, in my book unless you know a lot of madda then you don't know a hill of beans about Torah. If you're learning Kodashim, for example, and you don't know animals, then you're just zugging tehillim. A lot of these great talmidei chachomim wouldn't know a Bavel from a baseball, so they're just great zuggers/ memorizers. They're like Bar Ilan CDs.

All the true greats--all of them--know a lot more than how to misapply maamarei chazal. R' Yaakov Kamenetzky quoted Christian David Ginsburg in Emes L'Yaakov. The rest of this bunch? Feh.

The Rambam is very clear in Moreh Nevuchim that one cannot be a Godol without an understanding of Science and Philosophy. When I first learnt that, a couple years ago, I was skeptical, I have to admit. I felt the Rambam was just trying to justify his own love of philosophy. Why on earth should a Rosh Yeshivah or Godol need to know Science?!

But in the last year or so, my whole attitude has changed. I started to read Science books and journals, and saw the most amazing things in there, the most incredible chochmah. I know personally what a tremendous amount I have gained from debating the skeptics, and thinking critically about all sorts of issues. These kind of critical thinking skills and philosophical ideas are simply not taught in the Yeshivah world. It’s no wonder that our Gedolim are deficient, from the Rambam’s point of view they are missing a key foundational building block.

To the right of us are many people with juvenile, even infantile, unsophisticated and quite frankly backwards conceptions of the world and how it works. They may be Gedolim in Torah and Halachah, but they are Ketanim in Maddah and Sechel. But it's more than that. As the Rambam said, the lack of knowledge in Maddah produces a weaker understanding of God and religion too. The two concepts of Torah and Maddah are equally important. Torah without Maddah is defficient. And nothing has more clearly illustrated this than the events of the past year.

Those to the right have strayed so far from reality that they actually ‘pasken’ that reality is kefirah. But worse than this, the right is being merachek some of our smartest thinkers, people who simply cannot tolerate such stupidity. The Rambam spent his life trying to reconcile the science of his day with Torah, yet these people declare the science of our day to be kefirah!

But this is not evidence against Torah. This is not evidence against the Mesorah. This is the most incredible evidence for how right the Rambam was. Writing over Eight Hundred years ago, before real Science had even been invented, the Rambam understood the truth.

I’m not saying that every Godol needs a PhD in Physics and Chemistry, of course not. But at least they need to understand the basics! Otherwise they will look like fools. In fact, they do look like fools.

But this drashah is not about bashing the Gedolim. Really.

Let’s look in the other direction, to the left. What do we see?

We see some very smart people, some very knowledgeable people, who have become very disillusioned with Orthodox Judaism. They have discovered that Breishis can’t be literally true. They say that parts of Shemos and the Neviim can’t be true. Their whole lives they have been fed the extremist fundamentalist conception of Judaism. They were told Modern Orthodoxy is treif, and that the Rambam was wrong in the Moreh Nevuchim for trying to reconcile Science and Torah. When these people finally realize that a global flood is not possible, or that there were many people alive 10,000 years ago, they just can’t comprehend it. Bit by bit they slip away, rejecting one core principle of Judaism after another. Eventually many of them become hard core skeptics, rejecting all of Judaism. Some even end up as Atheists. Think about this for a second: We have graduates of our finest chareidi yeshivot ending up as atheists! This isn’t 1850 with the rise of the Haskalah and emancipation. This is 2006, with a kosher pizza store on every corner. Is this not mind-boggling?!

These people have become ‘Gedolim’ in Maddah and Sechel, but in the process they have become Ketanim in Torah and Mitzvot. Do they have any answers to how the Universe was created? What’s the fundamental basis of current reality? (It’s turtles all the way down!). Can they explain consciousness, free will or why anyone should be moral? Do they have any mehalch in life, any reason to do anything other than ‘eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we will die’? Because they have discovered some untruths in Orthodoxy, they end up throwing everything away.

Some of these people end up being Orthoprax by choice. They keep the Halachah, not because they believe in Torah MinHashamayim, but because of the positive benefits it can provide. This is looked down upon by the Orthodox world. Ironically, these people may be closer to the truth than the right wing, who think that the Halchahot were given by God ‘just because’. The Rambam has very strong words on the subject:

THERE are persons who find it difficult to give a reason for any of the commandments, and consider it right to assume that the commandments and prohibitions have no rational basis whatever. They are led to adopt this theory by a certain disease in their soul, the existence of which they perceive, but which they are unable to discuss or to describe. For they imagine that these precepts, if they were useful in any respect, and were commanded because of their usefulness, would seem to originate in the thought and reason of some intelligent being. But as things which are not objects of reason and serve no purpose, they would undoubtedly be attributed to God, because no thought of man could have produced them.

According to the theory of those weak-minded persons, man is more perfect than his Creator. For what man says or does has a certain object, whilst the actions of God are different; He commands us to do what is of no use to us, and forbids us to do what is harmless. Far be this ! On the contrary, the sole object of the Law is to benefit us. Thus we explained the Scriptural passage," for our good always, that He might preserve us alive, as it is this day" (Deut. vi. 24). Again," which shall hear all those statutes (hukkim), and say, surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people" (ibid. iv. 6). He thus says that even every one of these" statutes" convinces all nations of the wisdom and understanding it includes. But if no reason could be found for these statutes, if they produced no advantage and removed no evil, why then should he who believes in them and follows them be wise, reasonable, and so excellent as to raise the admiration of all nations ?

But the truth is undoubtedly as we have said, that every one of the six hundred and thirteen precepts serves to inculcate some truth, to remove some erroneous opinion, to establish proper relations in society, to diminish evil, to train in good manners or to warn against bad habits.

I can’t think of any attitude in contemporary Orthodoxy which bothers me more than the ‘We do the Mitzvos because we are commended to’ attitude. What a ridiculous notion! How any intelligent adult can believe in this nonsensical attitude is beyond me. Could there be deep mystical effects behind the mitzvos, rather than anything rational? It’s possible, but I doubt it. Sure, there is great value in the mystical tradition, and even value in thinking of mystical symbolisms when performing the Mitzvot. But this is not the core of the Mitzvot. They are not magic tricks. Davening isn’t magic spells. If you don’t understand why you are doing something then it has very little value.

The Rambam was probably one of the most (if not the most) influential figures in Judaism in the last two thousand years, possibly three thousand. Even in the backwardness of the middle ages, the Rambam was a shining beacon of rationality. Of course he was handicapped by the science of his times. But even with that he was still so far ahead of his time that even today his works are still fresh. If anything, interest and respect for the Rambam has grown over the centuries rather than diminished.

When one reads the Moreh Nevuchim one can’t help but be astounded by what the Rambam was attempting to do. Reading the Friedlander or Pines translations can be difficult, and I certainly wouldn’t give much credence to any Feldheim or Artscroll books which may contain interpreted snippets of the Rambam’s thought.

Recently I have been reading ‘Maimonides: A Guide For Today’s Perplexed’ by Kenneth Seeskin. This books is AMAZING. OUTSTANDING. It’s a small, inexpensive work, by a (Jewish) philosophy professor, but it reads like the most moiradick sefer I have ever seen. If I translated this book into Hebrew and published it as a Sefer written by a Rav you couldn’t tell the difference (except maybe with some of the ‘heretical’ bits). It’s that good.

(Holy Hyrax and others: BUY THIS BOOK. READ THIS BOOK. NOW!)

The Rambam didn’t have a mesorah for most of his philosophy. He even admits as much himself. He figured it out by thinking hard. He even say’s he got ‘flashes’ of inspiration, in a process ‘similar to prophecy’. I think I know what he is talking about.

To me, its clear that God exists. And if God exists, then there is a reason He created us. It is also clear to me that the current, standard official ‘Orthodox’ theology is not all true. I debated with a skeptic last week who insisted on saying that ‘Orthodoxy is NOT true’. But that’s a very negative way of presenting things. Certainly, not everything in Orthodoxy is 100% true. But that’s a long way from saying Orthodoxy is not true.

I am grateful that I experienced life in Chareidi Yeshivot and in the Chareidi world. Instead of seeing the Chareidim as beings from another planet, I can relate to them and their culture. I know what a true shabbos feels like, or learning shtark for hours at a stretch. There is truth in there. Maybe not the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but certainly some truth.

I am also grateful for all the debates I have had with the skeptics, even the militant anti-religious skeptics. They have taught me so much.

It’s clear to me that both Science and ‘Torah’ are true, or rather that both contain truth. They both come from God, they MUST reconcile. But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to kvetch unlikely peshattim in Breishis, or come up with ridiculous scenarios in Shemos.

Is it possible that the Scientists are wrong? Yes, I suppose it’s remotely possible. Is it possible that God doesn’t actually exist? Yes, I suppose it’s remotely possible. It’s also remotely possible that we are all just brains in a jar, or maybe just you are. But one can’t live one’s life worrying about the remotely possible. The Truth is right there in front of us. We only need to open our eyes to see it.

We have a very difficult task ahead of us. It’s nothing less than the deconstruction and then reconstruction of Judaism to make it fit with the latest knowledge. And of course, as the latest knowledge is continually improving, that means it’s a continuous process of deconstruction and reconstruction. There is no other way. A static Judaism worked for 1,500 years of exile, but only in a static world. In a dynamic world, Judaism must be dynamic also.

Even though the Rambam lived 800 years ago, his approach still resonates today, perhaps even more than ever.

On Thursday nights I attend an advanced Rambam shiur. This week we studied how the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim interpreted the Maaseh Merkava as an allegory to Aristotelian Metaphysics. At first, this depressed me greatly. If the Rambam could go to great lengths to invent such a bogus peshat, what credibility could he have? But after thinking about it later (and due in no small part to my Rebbe’s reply), I realized that I was again falling into the fundamentalist inspired trap of only thinking in black and white. Of course not every word in the Moreh Nevuchim is 100% true. But that doesn’t mean it’s all false.

Some people might question how any of this is different from Reform or Conservative Judaism. Didn’t those movements have exactly the same goals? And even worse, haven’t those movements proven to be abject failures? This is a tough question. You could claim the Rambam was a Reformer. Some people claim that Chazal were huge reformers. There is nothing wrong with reform per se, as long as it’s Leshem Shamayim, and performed due to a desire for the emmes. Certainly, some of the original leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements had the right motivations. Some of these people could even be called ‘Gedolim’. But the vast majority of the laity was interested for other reasons. They wanted out of the Ghetto and wanted to be rid of the restrictions of Halachot. I believe that many of the skeptics here and elsewhere are not looking for that. What they are looking for is a passionate Judaism that they can believe in.

I don’t think the Rambam has all the answers, but reading Seeskin’s summary of the Moreh Nevuchim has convinced me that he’s on the right path. Right now, it’s more of a ‘flash’ than something I can articulate clearly. It’s a sense that behind every simplistic understanding of Judaism (e.g. God dictated every word of the Torah to Moshe), there’s a different, much more subtle, yet equally inspiring reality, that is not in conflict with the facts at all. It’s clear that the Chareidi world is unable to accept such a reality. It’s equally clear that much of what the Rambam says in the Moreh Nevuchim couldn’t be accepted by the Chareidi masses either. But that’s not a flaw in Judaism per se. It’s the unfortunate consequence of 1,000 years of ghetto-ization.

Rather than complaining about how distorted Orthodox Judaism has become, we must start building a new version of Orthodox Judaism, based primarily on the Rambam, but also on other contemporary thinkers such as Rav Kook, RYBS and similar. We will not shirk from any established fact. We will not stoop to apologetics or kiruv clownliness. I think we can build something which makes sense. I think we can become Gedolim in Science AND in Torah.

That’s our goal and that’s our mission.

Scoff, be skeptical, call us heretics; we don’t mind. We need the criticisms and the debates from both the right and the left, because that’s the only way to grow. While stinging and uncomfortable at times, the comments of Mis-nagid to the left and Anonymous to the right are equally valuable to us. We also need the advice and insights from those few people who are on the same path as us, especially David G. Boruch Hashem for all these people, I don’t know what we would do without them. It’s also clear to me that I’m not just a student in this endeavor, but in fact a teacher. One of my ‘talmidim’ last week told me that it’s because of me that he’s still frum.

There really is no other option for us. It’s impossible to ignore science and history. But it’s equally impossible to become atheists or deists. We are heirs to a three thousand year old tradition. A tradition that changed the world. A tradition that has an incredible amount of truth in it. Does Buddhism contain truth? I’m sure it does. But I’m not a Buddhist! God put me on this earth for a reason, and placed me in an Orthodox Jewish setting for a reason. My goal is to take the tradition that I have been handed and make the most out of it.

The fundamentalists who refuse to budge from their infantile perceptions don’t trouble me so much. In fact I pity them and their lack of comprehension. I also greatly admire their commitment and passion. We have much to learn from them in this regard.

The skeptics who have thrown everything away don’t trouble me so much either. It saddens me that they couldn’t hang on to anything at all. I admire their commitment to the truth, but fear that they have gone too far, many to the point of no return. They threw out Orthodox Judaism, and then they threw out Judaism, and then they threw out God. They didn't just throw out the baby with the bath-water, they threw out everything with the bath water. But the saddest thing of all is that they didn’t have anything to replace it all with. They are now lost and adrift, in a sea of pop culture and nihilism. Who are they going to look to for inspiration and guidance?

Fellow seekers and talmidim, we are fortunate to have guidance and inspiration in our quest. Maybe not from the current crop of ‘Gedolim’, but certainly from a host of other sources, both ancient and contemporary. Our guiding lights in this endeavor will include the following:

First and foremost, and without equal, the Rambam.
Second, and almost without equal, Rav Kook.
Third, the Rav and his talmidim.

Fourth, other recent and contemporary thinkers, including:

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Rabbi Umberto Cassutto
Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz
Rabbi AJ Heschel

… and many others.

Is this a dangerous quest? Maybe. But there is no other option here. Can this be done in the public eye, without being branded as heretics, or ‘not Orthodox’? I’m not sure. We’ll have to see. It’s certainly not our intent to induce any emunah doubts in anyone. If you are comfortable where you are, but are concerned that you might get emunah doubts, then the OCCK is not for you.

We are looking for a mehalech in life. We are guided by 3000 years of Torah, but also by 3000 years of Maddah. There is no other way. Which one takes precedence in any particular issue? The question is flawed. Since God created both, it’s not a question of one taking precedence over the other.

It’s a question of what the emmes is. And we’re on a mission to find out.

Have a shavuoh tov.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Skeptical about Shemos? Read on…

Warning: This post is a potential emunah threat. This post is not for small children or naïve people from Lakewood. If you have no doubt that all of Breishis is literally true, then you can read on, because clearly nothing anyone says is ever going to affect your emunah in any way. On the other hand, if you have been persuaded that Breishis is not quite literally true, but think Shemos is fine, then maybe you should go read Hirhurim or Cross Currents instead. This post is only for those who already have doubts about Shemos.

Clearly, it would be remiss not to talk about Shemos. I have been putting it off for a number of reasons, including:

• I am not as fluent in history and archeology as I am in basic science
• It’s much more fun to argue about global floods and dinosaurs
• The stakes are way too high in Shemos

But we can’t put it off any longer. Last week, Rabbi Neil Gillman’s ‘dvar torah’ in the Jewish Week basically laid out the skeptical approach to Shemos: There is some basic element of truth to it, but as the story got retold and retold over the generations the facts became rather exaggerated'. I guess that’s what most Conservative Jews hold, but as Mis-nagid says, Joseph Smith probably did wear a hat, so that view of hisory isn't very useful.

So, let’s investigate the issues with Shemos. First, let’s discuss them purely objectively from an impartial perspective, and at the end we’ll talk about Faith. The basic assumption for this discussion is that God exists and that He interacts with the world. If you are an atheist or a deist, then clearly the key religious elements of Shemos are not possible, whether the rest of it is historically accurate or not.

There are five main topics to discuss:

1. The Plagues
2. The Escape of 2 million people
3. Kriyat Yam Suf & Other Miracles (Man etc)
4. Revelation at Sinai
5. Conquest of Canaan

(Yes, I know the conquest is not in Shemos, but we might as well address it now.)

1. The Plagues
There have been numerous attempts to explain the plagues in a naturalistic way. Indeed, the plagues themselves are mostly the typical kind of thing you get in Egypt, and even the ones that aren’t, can seemingly be explained fairly simply. For example, the Nile turns red each year due to algae, so maybe ‘dam’ means blood red rather than actual blood. Most explanations falter at the last plague, but I have even seen a naturalistic explanation for that too. For a believer in God though, the issue with the plagues is not so much how they could have happened, but whether history records them as having happened. We have no problems with miracles, as long as the miracle is as recorded in the Torah, and you don’t have to invent a bunch of very strange ‘after the fact’ miracles to explain away the total lack of evidence, or even opposing evidence, as with the flood. So, is it feasible that these plagues happened to Egypt and left no evidence? There is the famous ‘Ipuwer Manuscript’ which seems to talk about the plagues, and it is understandable that the Egyptians did not write about them much. Plus, the plagues would not really have left much geological or archeological evidence.

In summary, the emunah threat from the plagues is (relatively) low. You could go with either a naturalistic explanation or a miraculous one, and be okay.

2. The Escape
The Torah recounts that all the Bnei Yisrael, including an Erev Rav escaped from Egypt. Shortly afterwards the Torah counts the males as being about 600,000, which would imply a total population of around 2 million. This means that about 2 million people (ex slaves + hangers on) left Egypt suddenly. This is highly unlikely. First of all, this would have been a gigantic number by the standards in those days. The entire global population was much less than today. Secondly the movement of such a large number of people strains credibility. The Torah mentions many miracles, but it does not seem to imply that the movement of 2 million people out of Egypt is one of them. Even worse, such a gigantic event would surely have been recorded somewhere (besides the Torah), yet there is no trace of this anywhere else in recorded history

There is really no good way around this problem. From a rational perspective, the Torah’s account here is not very credible.

In summary: Emunah Threat very high

3. Kriyat Yam Suf & Other Miracles

I don’t really see any problems here, apart from the impossible numbers. God can do miracles if He wants to. There are also naturalistic explanations for the kriyat yam suf, the manna, and most of the other miracles too, though that approach would still require you to kvetch the text rather a lot.

In summary: Emunah Threat medium.

4. Revelation at Sinai
For a believer in God, it seems natural to assume that God could and maybe would communicate with His creation. Or, at the very least, would enable His creation (i.e. man) to intuit or become Divinely Inspired to figure out the goal in life, and the way to reach that goal. The story of Sinai does sound like a typical volcanic eruption story though, which is a little troubling. Then again, none of the other volcano stories finished up with the 10 commandments being given, so that was definitely a first.

In summary: Emunah Threat low.

5.Conquest of Canaan
Archeological evidence does not corroborate the Torah’s account of a massive invasion and conquest of Canaan. Archeologists debate about how much truth there is to the Biblical account, but as the Torah’s numbers are impossible anyway from a rational perspective, nobody takes a huge scale invasion of 2 million people very seriously. The evidence here seems to be strong, but archeology is kinda fuzzy, plus the full details of the conquest are in Nach, not the Torah, so I’ll just rate this one a low emunah threat.

Overall the shemos story loses credibility for two primary reasons:

1. The number of people involved is in itself not credible, considering population sizes at that time and the issues surrounding moving 2 million people quickly out of Egypt.
2. The scale and magnitude of the events would have left some record somewhere, in either archeological or other historical documents. There is none. The Torah and even more so the Midrashim only make this problem worse by implying that the whole world knew of these events. Maybe you can say Egyptians didn’t record anything because they had been defeated, but why didn’t any other nations record something?

There are a number of approaches to these problems, mostly pretty similar to the approaches in Breishis, but with some twists.

1. Ness/Nissayon

Everything in this story that is not explainable by (or is in conflict with) Science, Archeology, History etc. was/is a Ness and a Nissayon. This doesn’t work as well here as in Breishis, since with Breishis the Ness/Nissayonists have some slight crutches to lean on – the Gemarah that Adam was created fully formed, the notion that the Mabul waters were ‘magical’ and thus didn’t leave normal traces. With Shemos however, why would there be no evidence of such a monumental set of events? Did Hashem remove all traces of documentation or whatever davkah as a nIssayon? Seems very strange.

2. Myth/Moshol
We can say that all these events, whilst having a kernel of truth are basically mythology. However this is very difficult. While it may be acceptable in Breishis, it’s much harder to say this in Shemos, since the Torah was supposedly given right after these events occurred, so the Bnei Yisrael would surely have know what actually happened. How would they have accepted a mythological/moshological account of the current events? Unless they knew it to be exaggerated and they didn’t mind. Not a very credible peshat here, unless you say the Torah was written many years later, when people had forgotten the original events. Of course this doesn’t do much good for the Kiruv Clown Kuzari Proof.

3. Kiruv/Kvetch
The kvetchers would say that we can take the account non literally in places. For example, some people say that ‘eleph’ in the census does not mean thousand, but instead means a family clan, or maybe an army troop. Kvetching actually works better in Shemos than it does in Breishis. I am strongly opposed to the whole ‘local flood’ theory in Breishis, since that is clearly not the sense of the Noach story. A story about a man, a small boat, some pets and a local flood is not the story of the Mabul. However in Shemos it’s a bit different. A story about 20,000 slaves escaping from Egypt and then having a revelation from God at Sinai is still one heck of a story. So while kvetching would seem to be somewhat disingenuous, it doesn’t do as much violence to the overall story here.

There is of course much more to be said on this subject. From a rational perspective, the story in Shemos is not credible, by normal standards that we all use in other areas of every day life. It’s not just a problem of absence of evidence. Clearly, the absence of evidence is enough here to be counted as evidence of absence. The big question is, how strong is the evidence against the story? Strong enough to counter faith or not strong enough? The answer to this question will be different for each person.

My own point of view is that I will have faith as long as there is not hard evidence against it. I think there is hard evidence against the 2 million number, and so I cannot really accept that at this current time. Once you downsize the numbers, the problem of lack of evidence goes away, since a small escape would not have had global ramifications. The rest of the story (miracles etc) is basically okay (with a few tweaks). Of course the text still has to be dealt with. What I do with the text is the subject of another post. (Hint: It’s not kiruv kvetch.)

Mussar Shmmoze
I would like to end off this piece of skeptical thinking with a mussar shmooz.

Rabbosai, the Ribbono shel Olom put us on this Earth for a reason. We may not have all the answers, and everything may not add up. But if God exists (and we believe it’s likely that He does), then it’s unlikely He just created us and walked away. This implies that He is watching and listening to everything that goes on over here, or at least He might be. Imagine if you really, really felt this. I mean really, really, really felt this. Could you be mevatel even one second? Could you be rude even one time to your spouse, or to your parents? Could you do one averah? Even if you are an agnostic or weak atheist, if this really was a possibility could you possibly ignore it? I don’t think so. In fact, if you really, really, really, really felt it, you would probably be paralyzed with fear and wouldn’t be able to do anything at all, never mind any aveiros. As many even very frum yidden are quite comfortable doing at least some aveiros, it’s clear that very few people even amongst the maaminim really feel God’s presence, certainly not all the time. May it be God’s will that we feel His presence, if not all the time, at least some of the time.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Another mehalech in Noach?

There is another option with Noach, for those who really like to think that Noach actually existed. I suppose you could say there was someone called Noach, who was miraculously saved from a devastating flood by God. Why is the Torah interested in the story of Noach? I guess because he was the ancestor of Avraham. Or maybe for some other lessons.

Of course to fit with science, the drama of the whole Noach story is totally gone. It was just a flood like many others, many survived and many did not. Plus there probably were not many animals on the boat, unless he had his pets and maybe some livestock with him. Probably also was a very very small boat, not something with more square footage than a Nimitz Class Aircraft carrier. Also the 120 years worth of building is not likely, considering that nobody in those days lived much past 70.

According to this interpretation, you get to keep Noach as a real person. However you have to say that the Torah totally exaggerated the story beyond all proportions. Which is worse? Saying the Torah contains mythology to teach some ethical lessons, or saying the Torah contains exaggerated stories?

According to the Mahartzu (as quoted by R Gil), there is an opinion that Breishis was actually written by the Avos (and Noach and whomever) and then included into the Torah by God (or Moshe on command of God). So I guess you can say that Noach was guilty of the exaggeration. And maybe we shouldn’t really blame him, because from Noach’s perspective, you can imagine things looked pretty bad. Maybe he was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

But if God knew the whole story was an exaggeration, caused by Noach’s PTSD, why didn’t He edit it out? I guess the answer is obvious – How can you question the mind of God?

And if you believe any of that, I have a furry lemur here who has something very important to tell you.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Noach Lo Hoyoh Veloh Yihyeh

The folks over on Avodah are still debating the Mabul. One guy has just discovered that there may have been a local flood in Mesopotamia about 6000 years ago! Yippeeee! So it must all be true then. Shame that the story of Noach actually describes a global wipeout, with every living animal on a boat, and then complete repopulation of the world afterwards.

Do you know how many words Noach speaks in the Chumash? 24. That's it. Just the blessings and the curses for his sons, right at the end of the story. There is plenty of God speaking to Noach, but Noach gets no lines at all. Plus, if you would actually bother to read the epic of Gilgamesh, the paralels are striking. (Kiruv Clowns: See! Noach must be true!).

When are you guys going to get it?!

From a rational perspective, IT DIDN'T HAPPEN.

There was no boat. There were no animals. There was no Noach. There was no global wipeout. The evidence is clear. And guess what? Believing Noach existed is not actually one of the ikkarim. I just checked. Twice.

Now, if you want to claim the whole thing is a ness, and God cleaned up all the evidence and then planted false evidence just to test our emunah then fine. Go ahead.

Personally, I would say it's just as logical to claim that Zoboomafoo planted all the evidence. But if you want to have faith in a bizzarre set of miracles then go right ahead. But at least admit it's all faith. There's no reason anywhere to be found.