כי לא מחשבותי מחשבותיכם

כִּי לֹא מַחְשְׁבוֹתַי מַחְשְׁבוֹתֵיכֶם, וְלֹא דַרְכֵיכֶם דְּרָכָי

Friday, December 23, 2011

Abi Gezunt! Or not?

Shigella bacteria
Last week, at the request of my guest, we and our children went to a chassidishe shteeble on Shabbos morning. During the prayers, my son needed to go to the toilet. He came back and said that he could't wash his hands because there was no soap! I told him to just wash it with water in the meantime, but inside I felt upset about yet another primitive ritual that is outdated these days.

And then I came across the following post by DovBear called Health Department takes notice of obscure Jewish ritual:
"From what I understand Shigella spreads more frequently among the OJ because we tend to wash with a cup, often before saying Asher Yatzer.  The bacteria goes from your hand to the cup, where it waits for the next person to use the cup for washing.  
In the letter that follows (contributed by Efrex) the NYC Health Department seems to acknowledge this problem, however delicately. In any event, its neat to see our rituals acknowledged."

Thomas Farley, M.D., M.P.H., Commissioner
December 2011
Dear Parent:
The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) is concerned about a recent increase in the number of children with diarrheal illness caused by the bacteria Shigella in the Borough Park and Williamsburg sections of Brooklyn. Most illness has occurred among young children (ages 1-5). Shigella germs are found in the intestinal tract. The disease is most commonly spread by direct contact with an infected person. The Shigella germ can spread quickly among young children in day care programs or pre-kindergarten programs. Symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal cramping and bloody diarrhea.
Large outbreaks of shigella have previously occurred in traditionally observant Jewish communities in Boro Park and Williamsburg as well as other parts of New York State, New Jersey, Illinois, Maryland and Canada. One such outbreak affected over 1900 persons and lasted for eight months.
  1. The most important way to prevent this disease is good hand washing with both soap and warm water. This is especially important after going to the bathroom. Before performing Asher Yatsar, children should wash with soap and warm water. Hands should be also washed on arrival at day care or school, before eating or whenever hands look, feel, or smell unclean. For parents, handwashing after diaper changing is also very important. Developing the habit of good handwashing will prevent not just Shigella but many other diseases that spread person-to-person, some of which may be serious.
  2. If your child develops diarrhea, he/she should not be sent to day care or school until the diarrhea has completely resolved. Because transmission is person to person, we want to be sure that other children as well as teachers do not get sick from this germ. One way to make sure that your child no longer has the germ is to test the stool. The DOHMH asks that ill children have at least two negative stool tests to be sure that the child is no longer carrying the Shigella germ. While we understand it can be a hardship, this is a requirement in all New York City daycares and is to protect other children in the daycare and the community. You can have the stool tested either at your regular doctor or through the DOHMH.
  3. Since the Shigella bacteria has become resistant to two commonly-used antibiotics, we are not recommending that all infections be treated. Mild illness will usually resolve on its own without antibiotics. More severe infections need to be evaluated by your physician.
We appreciate your cooperation in helping to control this outbreak and ensuring continued good health for your family and your community.
Marcelle Layton, M.D.
Marcelle Layton, M.D., Assistant Commissioner
Bureau of Communicable Disease
New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene
Just imagine this: An obviously significant amount of children are suffering from diarrhea and other diseases just because some fanatics never updated their hygiene standards. Some kids even receive antibiotics they don't need. Imagine also all the other diseases like flues and colds that are transmitted among adults just because of the lack of hygiene.

Perhaps Jews were more hygienic in the Middle Ages than our non-Jews neighbors and this saved many lives. But we already know about bacteria since the 17th century when Antony van Leeuwenhoek discovered them, and we know at least for a century already that washing our hands with soap will reduce bacterial infections.

So much for 'Abi Gezunt'!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Zecher Kofer Livrachah

A great man of reason and integrity has unfortunately succumbed to cancer at age 62. We will sorely miss him for his candid, witty and outspoken remarks against religion. A sadness crept into me that has accompanied the whole day already.

What made Hitchens unique was that he spoke with his heart what was on his mind. He was candid, honest enough to commend his adversaries in debates (unless they really didn't want to listen). A fellow kofer as well-read, eloquent and charming will be hard to find.

Below, I linked a video that gives you an impression of his astuteness, wit, eloquence and passion:

We'll miss you, Hitch.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

On Orthodox Jewish Leadership

Life in Israel (a blog I regularly check) reported on Rav Shteinman's alleged 'explanation' of the shidduch crisis in a blog post called Rav Shteinman Explains The Shidduch Crisis. My two cents after the quote:
"There has been lots of discussion and reasons given for the shidduch crisis. This is a novel approach that I never heard before to explain the crisis.
According to Kikar, some askanim from the United States of America went to Rav Shteinman the other day and asked about the shidduch crisis - why it is such a crisis, what caused it, how it can be resolved.
Rav Shteinman blamed it on the teachers in the frum schools.
Rav Shteinman did not blame the teachers in the way you might be thinking right now, they are teaching girls, or boys, to be picky, to demand x, y or z, to only accept this or that. Rather, Rav Shteinman explained that many of the girls [graduating from school in the frum community] become teachers. As teachers, there are times where they might not be careful enough with showing respect to their students. One comment out of place, or one comment that was said the wrong way, that is enough to cause a girl to be insulted and deeply hurt. That insult might cause a "kpeida" against the teacher.
Rav Shteinman said teachers should be very careful regarding the honor of their students, not to chalila hurt anyone. Such a kpeida is very serious and can cause girls to not find their proper zivvug."
What I am bothered about most in the Kikar report is the way the askanim and Rav Shteinman are dealing with the subject matter. Let me explain.

Let's assume for argument's sake that the information brought back to Kikar was word-for-word correct.
How do the askanim / how does Rav Steinmann define 'shidduch crisis'? If a girl is not married yet by age 22? If 50% of the girls get married after their religious expiry date (meaning they can't have more than 7 kids anymore)?

Moreover: Does the shidduch crisis only happen to girls? Doesn't it take two to tango?!

The proper approach would be first to define the problem, to get some statistics, and then research this alleged shidduch problem properly. Do we really have a problem? What circles are affected? How do we define the issue and what are its parameters? What are they being taught in sem / yeshivah? Are these mindsets compatible?

The pious approach of explaining phenomena along the lines of some mystical thing that is blocking blessings from above serves nobody and doesn't get anywhere.

Whereas a more practical approach might require some leadership and actually be effective.

Footsteps on National Geographic

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Can't Subject Religion to Science?

I often heard people say that you can't bring any contradictions between science and religion as a proof that Judaism is not true, because they are simply not acting in the same realm: science describes the how, whereas religion explains the why.

This way, many people think to rationalize their irrational beliefs. Also, it makes their religion sound super sophisticated: "science 'only' explains the 'how', but religion knows the 'why'!"

Of course, the claim that "we can't bring any contradictions between science and religion" just shows how scared people really are to subject their beliefs to proper investigation.

But it turns out that...their claim is simply untrue. Judaism does indeed occupy itself with a whole lot of 'hows'. Some examples where the Torah tries to explain the 'how':
  • How the world was created (not why)
  • How man was created (not why)
  • How the Mishkan was built (not why)
  • How the Jewish people were redeemed from slavery in all its details (the why not being the focus of the story)
  • How the Jews traveled through the desert, where they stopped, etc. (the why not being the focus of the story)
  • How the Torah was given in all its boring details (not why)
  • How sacrifices are to be brought in all its boring details (not why)
  • Etc., etc.
So, my dear fellow Jews, before you claim again that your religion is above all criticism, to phrase it in jargon: hafoch bah vehafoch bah ki kulah bah: delve into it and see it is all there...

Kudos to Daat Emet for bringing this up in their Q&A.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Innocence Betrayed

Anonymous guest post

By the time I was ten years old I knew this life wasn't for me. No, I was not molested. I was not beaten or abused in any way. I was the middle child in a large Orthodox family and I always felt loved and cared for. My parents are honest and kind, good people.

But there was something in this life filled with rules and limits that I couldn't understand, something that tugged at my heart and told me that my path would be different. And all this before any Jew would disappoint and disgust me and lead my intellectual self running toward the place my heart had been taking me to.

I was fourteen at the time. I was hanging out with whomever I wanted. I was eating whatever I wanted. But I was in an Orthodox school and environment and my friends were, as well. I wasn't doing drugs. I wasn't staying out late with a bad crowd and partying. I was living the life I knew was right for me.

My friend Leah was rebellious. She knew she was would always be frum, but the pull of my attractive life had her acting out and doing stupid things. She was looking for answers and wanted help, so when someone suggested she speak to Rabbi Ezriel Tauber, she did. She liked him and found that his approach worked for her. Maybe she just wanted some extra attention and validation of what she already believed. In any case, she harassed me into going to see him. I did, just to make her stop.

And then my whole life changed.

My view of Jews and Rabbis became warped. He was the first of many to show themselves for who they really are - wolves in sheep's clothing.

It was a chilly night and Rabbi Tauber's small office was warm and cozy. I thought to myself, "This will be quick and easy". Oh boy, was I wrong! So painfully wrong.

The Rabbi told me that my soul wanted to be better than I was. That I was giving in to animalistic cravings and I had to stop. I told him I didn't agree with him and liked where I was in my life. When he asked if I was involved with a guy, I was honest and said yes. Then he asked for the boy's phone number. I was immediately suspicious and said I didn't want to share that with him. Why did he want the number? The Rabbi said he just wanted to talk to my friend and see what kind of guy he was. I was curious. I wanted to know what he would say and how my friend would respond. So I gave him the number.

The Rabbi dialed the number while I sat there, totally trusting him at his word. And then he blew my naive world apart. He told my friend that I had come to him for help. That I wanted to break up with him but didn't have the courage to do it myself. He said I wanted to be a better Jew and wanted nothing to do with boys anymore. Consider the relationship over.

I was shocked.

Rabbis don't lie! Rabbis are trustworthy! How could this have happened?! But it had.

I left Rabbi Tauber's office with an open wound that night. Over the years salt has been poured on my wounds and they have been reopened wide, time and time again. The further away I travel from that world, the easier it is for me to breath. The air over here is clear.

I think I'll stay.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Another Great Article About Atheism

At the risk of the trolls again accusing me of being an atheist (which I am not and which I wouldn't consider an insult anyway), let me be clear: I am still not sure if I believe in a deity or not. I just know that I don't believe in organized religion and that if I would believe in a God, it would have to be more like Einstein's or Spinoza's God.

Still, even though I am not an atheist, atheism is often purposefully misrepresented by religious zealots. This article from the American Atheists website puts the record straight. An excerpt (emphasis mine):

Speaking of the original meaning, the word atheism comes from the Greek atheos, which means “without god.” The original meaning of the word, based on its Greek origins, mentions nothing about “disbelief” or “denial.” A short and single-word definition would be “godless.”

The fact that the dictionary definitions use the phrase “there is no God” betrays the theistic influence in defining the word “atheism.” If dictionaries did not contain such influence, then the definition would read, “A belief that there are no gods.” The use of god in singular form, with a capital G, is indicative of Christian influence.

In addition, using words like “doctrine” and “denial” betray the negativity seen of atheists by theistic writers. Atheism does not have a doctrine at all and I certainly do not “deny” that gods exist. Denial is the “refusal to believe.” Atheism does not “know there is a god but refuse to believe in him (or her, for that matter).” That is as silly as saying that you know Big Foot exists but you refuse to believe in him. If the evidence of gods was insurmountable and provable, and atheists still refused to believe, then that would be an act of denial. This is similar to how Scully refused to believe in aliens and UFO encounters even though Mulder had insurmountable evidence of their existence. Scully denied the existence of aliens and UFO’s even though the evidence was overwhelming. She was a horrible example of a skeptic!

Atheism is not a belief system. Atheism is not a religion. Atheism may be part of an individual’s religious beliefs, but atheism, in and of itself, is not a belief or religion. Some religions do not have a concept of god(s). One out of three religions worldwide is atheistic in nature, meaning that they worship no gods: Taoism, Buddhism, Spiritualism, New Age, and others (Macmillan Information New Encyclopedia: World Religions, 1998).

Atheism is a lack of belief in gods, from the original Greek meaning of “without gods.” That is it. There is nothing more to it. If someone wrote a book titled “Atheism Defined,” it would only be one sentence long.
Is atheism a religion or a belief system? Let us look at the different definitions of religion and see if atheism belongs in any of them (using the American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition, 2006).
1. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe. A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.
No atheism resides in that definition. Atheists do not believe in a supernatural power or powers.
2. Beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.
Atheism does not have a spiritual leader and atheism does not have any rites or rituals (practices) around such a spiritual leader. Atheism requires no initiation, no baptism, there is no Atheist Bible (Koran, Vedas, etc) to read, no rituals that atheists must go through to join an Atheist Church (temple, mosque, synagogue, sect, etc), and no central beliefs that all atheists must adhere to in order to be “true atheists.”

As I mentioned above, there are religions that are atheistic in nature, and they may fit the second definition. Atheism is not the religion. The religion just happens to be godless. Atheism is not the central tenet of their belief system, nor is it the foundational rock of their belief system.

The only common thread that ties all atheists together is a lack of belief in gods and supernatural beings. Every atheist is as unique as a fingerprint when it comes to his or her individual philosophy, convictions, and ideals.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Orthodox Judaism's Evolutionary Features

Disappearing Minhagim
The Hirhurim blog (nowadays called Torah Musings, as if that sounds better) featured an article called The Disappearing Melaveh Malkah about the meal after Shabbos that "has long suffered widespread abandonment", despite it being codified in the Shulchan Oruch.

I can't blame the people. After all, they have been busy stuffing themselves with challah, cholent and meat all day. In addition, sometimes Shabbos is out late and people just can't stomach any food anymore (seudah shelishit is difficult enough!). I mean, where I grew up Shabbos finishes after 11 PM in summer and to even think about a Melaveh Malkah then...

New features of Orthodox Judaism
However, I did not want to discuss disappearing minhagim as much as I want to address the new ones that have 'creeped into the system'. Let's forget for a minute about the shtreimelach and the black hats. Over my short lifespan, I have seen some new features of Judaism that have quickly become mainstream.

For starters, the outlandish minhag of Upsherin (or 'Chalakah') or waiting with cutting a boy's hair until he is three, and then having a party when cutting the boy's hair (preferably on Lag baOmer). (Now, try to explain to anyone that your son has to look like a girl because...)

I do not remember having seen this minhag at all when I grew up (except for at the Lubavitchers about whom we always said they were the closest thing to Judaism). But nowadays, it is kind of a 'in' thing to do. Personally, I had several times that people asked me if I let my boys' hair grow or not. As if that should come into consideration! And when I tell people I don't do it because it is not my minhag and I don't think it is authentic, they seem to be perturbed.

Shalom Zachor
There is no sillier strain on a couple that just had a boy born to them than to have to organize a Shalom Zachor (sholem zocher / shulem zucher) on the Friday night following the birth. Wouldn't that be a beautiful time for the family to be together? The original idea is to comfort the boy that just had forgotten the Torah by coming by and by 'comforting him'. Bet some of you didn't know that. Nowadays it's just an opportunity to say mazzeltov and 'snack until you crack'.

I have never seen this in my youth. And when my turn came, the fact that people would turn up anyway forced me to organize one. Why can't a kiddush in the babie's honor be enough? Why these unnecessary expenses? And who really believes that the boy, who is totally unaware of the whole ceremony since he usually is in the hospital with the mother at that time, is at all aware of having forgotten his learning?

Yehi Ratzon in Bentshing
Although the custom is mentioned in the Gemora already, still, the whole thing about saying the Yehi Ratzon for the baal habayis is something that was 'reintroduced' only in the last two decades or so. Until  then, bentshers didn't even feature this prayer (think about the standard Artscroll small-sized birkon that still doesn't have it!). Nowadays, it is hard to find a bentsher without it.

Not that I think that it is a bad custom, I am just saying that this stuff didn't exist during my upbringing.

White shirts during the week
Bochrim from outside of Israel (the so-called 'chutznikkim') who learnt in the big yeshivos (I know the example of Kol Torah) mostly wore normal, striped and colored shirts and a cap. Nowadays, you will only find people wearing white shirts and dark suits and a black hat of course, in mainstream charedi yeshivos. (Only bale batim - nebbech! - wear blue shirts in frum circles.)

I remember distinctly the disgust I felt by people wearing almost the same clothes during the week as on Shabbos, even while frum. There was something disrespectful to Shabbos about it. And now, this dress code has become quite common in my home town.

Other changes
Other chumras and new customs include: not relying on cholov stam (despite stringent government regulations!), the issur of chodosh, mechitzahs during public lectures, mehadrin hechsherim, Avos uBonim, perek shira segulos, mehadrin buses and, believe it or not: washing strawberries with soap!

Orthodox Judaism (at least as I experienced it over only the last few decades!) still is work-in-progress and that it has grown organically over time. And unfortunately, the new chumras and superstitions appear to outweigh the disappearing customs.

Increasing the likelihood of me coming out of that kofer closet...

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Alan Dershowitz: On Secularism

Alan Dershowitz is one of the most famous US lawyers. What some don't know about him is that he was born from Orthodox parents, then became conservative and nowadays he is secular. Listen to this YU / Yale graduate when he speaks about separation of church and state.

From the Center for Inquiry.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

On the Ibn Ezra’s ‘Rational’ Approach

DovBear last year featured a posting by Yeedle called The Ibn Ezra's 'valid' approach for solving difficult verses (like the flood of Noah, topic of this week’s parashah).

I found the original quote on the Daat site and added my own translation. The text is from the second edition of the Ibn Ezra’s introduction to the book of Bereishit (Genesis):

והנה אומר כלל בתורה גם בדברי המקרא גם במשנה ובכל מסכתותובכל ברייתות ומכילתות
שאם מצאנו באחד הנזכרים דבר שיכחיש אחד משלשה דברים
כי האחד‚ שקול הדעת הישרה או כתוב מכחיש אחר בדרך סברא או יכחיש הקבלה הנגמרה
אז נחשוב לתקן הכל כפי יכלתינו בדרך משל‚ או תוספות אות או מלה על דרך לשונינו
ואם לא נוכל לתקן אל האמת‚ נאמר כי זאת החכמה ממנו נעלמה
כי יד שכלנו קצרה  ודעת בני דורנו חסרה והדבר שהלאנו‚ יהיה כספר מונח ונעזב
וחלילה לנו לומר שהוא שקר וכזב גם לא נאמין שהוא כמשמעו רק נאמין כי הכותב זה הסוד הוא ידעו
כי יש בדברי הקדמונים סודות על דרך משלים וחידות שלא יבינום כל השומעים ולבעל  המחקר יהיו נודעים

Now I will say a general rule concerning the Torah, both the words of the written text and the Mishnah and in all the Books (of the Babylonian Talmud) and the Baraita and Mekhilta. That if we find in one of the [above-]mentioned something that contradicts one of the following three [things]: Firstly, common sense (1) or a verse contradicting another verse through reason (2) or contradicting a taught tradition (3), then we should try to rectify it all, according to our capabilities: trough [seeing it as] a parable, or by the addition of a letter or word, in the way of our language. And if we can’t correct it [according] to the truth, we will say that this wisdom has disappeared from us because our mental capabilities are limited and the knowledge of our generation is lacking. And the matter that we exhausted (brought up?) will be like a book that is laid down and abandoned. And God forbid that we should say it is falsehood and a lie. We should also not believe that it is [to be understood] literally. Rather, let us believe that the one that wrote down this secret knows it (the secret). Because there are in the words of our ancestors secrets through parables and riddles that those who hear it will not understand and they will [only] be known to those who investigate it [properly].

What we learn from here from the Ibn Ezra, a supposed ‘rational thinker’: If something in our tradition is difficult to understand: a) first try to see if it can be understood as an allegory, b) then correct the text by adding one letter or word, and if this all doesn’t work: c) say that we can’t understand it because our brains are limited.

In other words, his approach is:

  1. The Written Torah and the Talmudic books are always true, regardless of the facts.
  2. If they don’t make sense, make sure it will make sense by saying it should be understood in another way or tampering with the evidence!
  3. If this doesn’t work, just say: We can not understand it. Rational thinking ends here.

In short: a more ‘Rational’ Rabbi like the Ibn Ezra admits that he is not really being rational.

So tell me: how on earth can the representatives of Orthodox Judaism expect us to take the Torah, Gemara, etc. seriously?!?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Off The Derech Facebook Group Comment of the Week

Ch. said:

It's really great to be a part of this group. I've doubted since I've been a child, but I've never had a community of people who are like minded. The nice thing is that if we all go to hell, at least I'll know people there ;)

In the meantime, the group has steadily grown to close to 250 members. Interested? Just request to be added here: http://www.facebook.com/groups/offthederech/.

PS Kiruv clowns need not apply.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Nira is Back!

We missed ya, Nira! Looking forward to more kofer wisdom on the weekly parsha ;)

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Great Article On Atheism

Disclaimer: I do not, currently, classify myself as an atheist, but I find the following article from American Atheists very instructive for those who foolishly believe atheism is a religion. Vehameivin yovin!

The Persistent And Incorrect Belief That Atheism Is A Religion

I wrote an article a while back that debunks the myth that Atheism is a religion.  The topic has come up frequently as of late, especially in light of some of my more recent writing, and it was one of the topics of discussion on the October 4th edition of Pennsylvania State Director Ernest Perce’s television show “Atheist Perspectives,” which I guest host from time to time.  Over the past several weeks I have received numerous requests to “reprint” it here on the No God Blog, so without further adieu…

It is suggested by many people that atheism is a religion.  Before we can examine why atheism is sometimes defined as a belief, it is important to understand who defines it as such.  Rarely, if ever, will you find another atheist, agnostic, freethinker, humanist, secularist, etc., putting the definition of religion in the context of atheism.  Almost without exception, it is the religious who do so.  The reason is simple.  The religious are are so caught up in their own beliefs that imagining another person without having any religious beliefs is largely incomprehensible. Those who claim that atheism is a religion do not only lack a clear understanding of what atheism is, they also tend to use religious terms to describe atheism.

There exists only one definition of atheism, and that is simply the lack of a belief in a deity.  There is a philosophical aspect to atheism, but it is not part of the definition, but an extension of the individual. Atheism, in of itself, cannot be described as religous because it takes mental gymnastics to attach the narrative, experiential, social, ethical, doctrinal, ritual and materialaspects of religion to atheism because it is not a structured system with defined rules.  It has no uniform beliefs and is not a means of understanding our existence.

With respect to the philosophical, atheism is not a philosophy. Unbelief in Santa Claus is not a philosophy and thus unbelief in deity is not. There does exist within the individual atheist a philosophy that is an extension of their atheism.  The philosophical aspects of atheism are germaine only to the individual. They do not surround their lack of belief, but are an extension of their experiences that have been affected by their unbelief. Whereas religion is a shared experience that is directly dependent on and pertinent to specific dogma, doctrine and superstitions, the atheist experience is dependent on nothing and pertinent only to the effect that unbelief has on how the atheist can effectively integrate in a religious society.

Thus, any comparisons that put atheism in the same context of religion are dishonest dialogue.  Atheism includes nothing even remotely similar to the religious.  Atheists can and do adopt a wide variety of points of view that can include anything except the belief in gods and still fit the definition of atheism. Even those who are outspoken, widely read and well known cannot be intelligently compared to religious leaders, and atheist organizations cannot be compared to religious congregations.  There exists none of the aspects that command such designations.

Inasmuch as the religous have a profundity to change the definition of words to suit their propaganda, atheism has no “preachers” nor “congregations”. Atheist groups have leaders and agendas, much in the way as groups such as the United Way.  To suggest that atheist groups are religious in nature is not only preposterous, but shows a lack of intellectual savvy that is common found in very young children.  The lack of “faithful believers” and the other inherent characteristics of religion do not allow for anything parallel between the two other than the assembly of human beings in one place.  The religious leader has a goal of uniting his congregation under one dogmatic banner where there is no room for congregational interaction, skepticism or free thought.  The atheist organization may or may not have the same speaker at their events, usually not, and the membership is encouraged to interact, discuss and be skeptical, and free thought and expression of opinion is accepted as the norm.

The fact that atheism has a literal definition and completely separate, individualized philosophical extension that is not connected to a common belief also separates it from religion.  The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, in an article on Religion, includes characteristics that in no way reflect someone who lacks the belief in supernatural beings, nor anything that unites atheists on a dogmatic level. Atheism does not include any distinctions between sacred and profane objects. There are no ritual acts or a moral code believed to be sanctioned by god(s), or any characteristically religious feelings such as awe, a sense of mystery, guilt or adoration.  Atheism includes nothing even remotely similar to prayer or other forms of communication with the supernatural.

Religion is a system of belief and atheism cannot be classified as a system of belief because there is no belief and there is no system. No rituals, practices, rules, doctrines or dogma. Atheism does not concern itself with gods and it is definitely not a “faith” that includes unquestioning belief requiring no proof. Atheists live according to reason and do not apply a reference to a higher power. Atheism is a scientific approach to theistic belief systems. It is not a theory, requires no faith and has no hidden agenda. While an individual atheist may seek to contradict theism by using rational thinking and scientific theory to debunk the dubious and irrational assertions of religion, atheism merely awaits evidence to confirm the existence of god.

Defining atheism as a religion is embellishment and bad philosophy. Atheism has no dogma, no rites, no holy books, no places of worship and no clergy of any description. It offers no moral guidance, no political opinions and no world view. Atheism is a religion like “off” is a channel on your television or bald being a hair color.


Al Stefanelli – Georgia State Director, American Atheists, Inc.

Well put, Al!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Strawman of the Week Award

strawman1 In the otherwise informative business news site Globes, Yerach Toker, a media advisor to the Knesset Finance Committee chairman and a self-proclaimed Haredi gets to write an article about the the Trajtenberg Committee (the committee appointed by Netanyahu to examine and propose solutions to Israel’s current socioeconomic problems). I quote (italics are mine):
It is not nice to say, but I have a feeling that the Trajtenberg Committee is simply superfluous. Even before the professor was brought in to carry out one of the main tasks the ministers in the elected government in any proper democratic country are responsible for, a few wise people and economists had already found the real culprits in the socio-economic crisis: the haredi (ultra-orthodox) community. The haredi community, so they claim, is responsible for the social -- economic situation, for holding back GDP, and in general, it is the haredi community that is guilty, end of discussion. It sounds good. The media also love it. So why not?
What happens to the haredi community never happens to any other sector in Israel. Reporters and commentators permit themselves to write the magical word haredi as much as they like, without learning about or investigating their way of life, or the significant socio-economic changes taking place in the sector. If these same reporters would just learn a little and get to know a few simple facts about the lives of these same "haredi " people they write about time and again, maybe they would understand how wrong and misleading they have been.
Some of the claims are simply unbelievable, yet over the years that the social debate has been taking place, they have become facts. In every argument between haredi and secular people, the same claims are heard, and this is despite the fact that most of them have no factual basis. And now, in the socio-economic campaign, these same commentators are repeating these claims and slogans without thoroughly checking them.
Many thousands of haredi men and women work for a living in the present, have done so in the past, and will continue to do so in the future. They work as teachers, educators, engineers, lawyers, doctors, journalists, laborers, and cashiers. This is the reality. Thousands of haredi people go out every morning to their place of work in order to properly provide for their families. This is the reality that I, as a haredi man, know and live. But you will never hear or read about this from well-known commentators or economists.
Another ridiculous claim that is heard again and again is that the haredi community does not pay taxes. I searched, checked, and asked my accountant which tax I, as a haredi person, am exempt from paying, and I just couldn't find one. He also could not find one. The haredi community pays much higher indirect taxes than secular Israelis. haredi families buy much more milk, bread and diapers than secular families. On each of these items, taxes are paid to the state. So where is this outrageous claim taken from, that haredi people do not pay taxes. Why do the media back these generalized, unfounded slurs?
Even if the claim refers to income tax, half of the haredi workers do not even reach the income tax threshold. Is this claim aimed at them too? Most income tax revenue comes from the upper echelons. It is time for this economic arrogance towards the haredi community to stop, and for these lies and slogans that are repeated, without having a drop of truth to them, to cease.
I would never dare to write a column on science. I also wouldn't write a column about biology or medicine. All of you wise-guys who blame the haredi community -- before you write something, check your facts, study a little, get to know some people, and know what you're writing about. The facts as I know them are not hidden. Whoever truly wants to know, is invited to become acquainted with the truth.
As behooves a media advisor, you can almost smell the propaganda in this piece. And how could Toker, being haredi himself, be objective about haredi workforce participation anyway?
Whereas I do agree that there may be many people who have absolutely no clue about haredi society and therefore may have a totally warped picture about its workforce participation, the following statistics as cited by Momo Mahadav, CEO of Maala (a non-profit organization that promots corporate social responsibility worldwide) are pretty straightforward:
The statistics on workforce participation in Israel are astounding. Some 59% of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) men and around half of Haredi women do not participate in the workforce. Only approximately 27% of Arab women work, along with some 50% of people with disabilities. Altogether, this represents an enormous chunk of society that is simply not part of the country’s economic productivity.
Even more worrying than the present state of affairs is the future, if these trends are allowed to continue. At present, around half of Israeli children belong to population groups in which non-employment is inordinately high (mainly Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews). If nothing is done to correct the trend, future job prospects for most of these kids will be less than bright.
So all I can conclude is that Toker has been setting up the following strawmen:
Strawman #1: “Many thousands of haredi men and women work for a living”.
The same is probably true for drug trafficking. But as you can see in the above stats, haredi people participating in the workforce are in fact the minority. This is unprecedented in the history of Judaism.
Strawman #2: “Another ridiculous claim that is heard again and again is that the haredi community does not pay taxes.”
This statement is not quantified and therefore useless. Fact is that haredi people pay fewer taxes than people in other socioeconomic strata due to the fact that: a) they participate less in the workforce and b) those who are working are less likely to contribute much to the GOP because of the high birthrates and the lower-earning jobs they have (teachers, shopkeepers, etc.).
Conclusion: It looks like Toker is misleading the Globes leadership on purpose using the strawman technique. For this, he receives the Undercover Kofer Strawman Award.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Choshuva Proposal

Guest post by Bruce Holland

I'm sure many of you heard about the incident in Monsey during Hurricane Irene. A 5-year-old boy (Reuven Herbst) was being electrocuted by a downed power line, a neighbor (Moshe Reichenberg) rushed to rescue him. Reichenberg was killed, and Reuven was injured critically.

You can read all about it here.

As you can see below, in the Monsey ad magazine Community Connections dated September 8-15, approximately a dozen women from the neighborhood where this occurred (including Reichenberg's widow) took out a full-page ad. The ad quotes the Chofetz Chaim, who said (allegedly) that machlokes is like fire. The women urge everyone to forgive old grudges and increase peacemaking as a merit for the boy's recovery.


Underneath the copy, as you'll see, is a section that includes updates regarding Reuven's condition: August 31 update: Since this campaign began, we heard that the boy's heart became stabilized and strong (sic). September 5 update: Doctors say that his body is recovering!

Of course, they add 'Chasdei Hashem' and 'Hodu L'Hashem Ki Tov' so we all know that we're praising the Lord for these miraculous signs of recovery, not the righteous women who are burying hatchets and forgiving one another and letting go of resentments right and left.

(Side note, it's Lashem, not L'Hashem. But hey, some of these women are BTs, and some of the others went to Beis Yaakov schools, so they don't know any better.)

So they're implying that the kid is improving as a direct result of their actions.

But apparently their actions weren't good enough, because Reuven died on Friday, 9/9.

I have so many questions, and yes, I don't mind voicing them even while the Herbst family is still sitting shiva.

How do people--BTs or FFBs or Rabbis or Rebbetzins or lay people--justify this kind of sanctimonious nonsense? It's not like we haven't seen it before. We saw it after Motty Borger killed himself, and after Leiby Kletzky's murder, too. People actually believe that they can draw direct corollaries from human actions to G0d, unless and until they can't, at which point they shrug and say, "Who can understand the ways of G0d?"

But you just got finished beating me over the head with guilt, and building up my hopes, telling me that by forgiving my insufferable shrew of an aunt (for example) and letting bygones be bygones, I'm actually making the world a better place *and* helping heal a critically injured child!
Yes, but, you didn't do enough. The improvement in Reuven's condition was from Hashem. And the deterioration was also from Hashem. Who are we to question?

It's infuriating to me that this drivel is what passes for discourse and what passes for Torah and Yiddishkeit among the rank-and-file here in Monsey and throughout the 'frum' or 'haredi' world. They're pushing dumb, blind, feel-good thought control, telling a naive and unquestioning audience that it actually makes a difference, and then wringing their hands piously when G0d, in His infinite humor, yanks the rug out from under them.

I hope that this story causes more people to question and doubt. Because these questions and doubts are more real than a thousand parroted kapitlech of tehillim. If some lose their faith, so be it. If others find it strengthened, more power to them. But for G0d's sake, don't drink the kool-aid. Push back. Force these patronizing know-nothings to admit that they can't predict anything, they don't know anything, and that ultimately, if there is a G0d, they can't say anything about it.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Telling Non-Rationalist Moment

Some time ago, Rabbi Slifkin published a post on his great Rationalist Judaism blog called A Grand Vision. Before I say anything, I should note that I respect Rabbi Slifkin for his courage and scholarship. I read his blog frequently and am in possession of his great work called The Challenge of Creation. I think that if there would be more Rabbis like him, many people would not have opted out of Orthodox Judaism. So perhaps it is a good thing there is only Rabbi Slifkin. But I digress…

In the abovementioned post, he divulges the reason why he doesn’t address an overall vision of Judaism:

“I am more of an intellectual historian than a theologian. And my own emunah is primarily based on Jewish history, which doesn't speak to everyone, and on hashgachah pratis in my own life, which is very personal and non-rationalist to the extreme!”

Those are frank and honest words.

Which should make everyone think: If even the most radically rationalist Orthodox Rabbi I am aware of does not base his religion on facts but on faith, what does this tell us about Orthodox Judaism?!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Introducing the Off the Derech Facebook Group!

otd_fb_group If you haven’t read Abandoning Eden’s auto-biographical post yet, you may have missed the fact that we created an Off the Derech Facebook group, just a few weeks ago

Actually, the original group was already created a while ago, but thanks to AE’s visionary prod, I upgraded it to the new Facebook Groups format. And so far, it has been a smashing success:

  • Our group membership has grown from about 92 to almost 200 now
  • In total, over 500 posts were created!
  • There is even an Openly Off the Derech now for people who are more outspoken about their beliefs
  • Rumor has it that there now even is a Facebook group for people who are On the Derech as a reaction to this group, but I wasn’t able to find it so far

It really seems that users are finding a home in the OTD FB group. Probably also because this is a closed group, respecting people’s privacy and security. If you would like to know more, please read our suggestions.

Some positive feedback we received so far…

“I really like what this group represents. I feel like I can express anything and its almost like having a very diverse open minded family. Someone somewhere always seems to pop up and have your back. I don't mean to be mushy or anything but Thanks... “ (Daphne)

“just want to say how great it is to have this group...so far been doing mostly browsing instead of posting, but it still gives me a lot of strength by reading all of your posts” (Jeff)

If you would like to join the group, just request to be added and we’ll take it from there.

Update: Our group has a shotlink called http://www.facebook.com/groups/offthederech/. Also, the On the Derech FB group, created as a reaction to our Off the Derech FB group is called http://www.facebook.com/groups/openlyon/.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Why Debating is a Debatable Exercise

Untitled Ever tried to argue on the Internet with a frum person? Whether it’s a guy like Amnon Yitzchak or JP, it usually doesn’t get you anywhere.

Here’s 3 reasons why.

1. Cognitive dissonance

Just imagine you would have to be open for suggestions that challenge your current belief system. It potentially could mean that you would have to revise this belief system and, ultimately, your comfortable way of life. There’s too much at stake for your average kiruv clown to even start considering the option of the other person being right: It may lead to the disintegration of the family or financial insecurity.

Now, just because I see this question coming: these are same reasons why skeptics like me decide to stick to their current lifestyle (at least, for the moment). However, there is an important difference: at least skeptics are willing to listen to what the other guy has to say. What you do with that information is for you to decide.

But there are more interesting reasons why it doesn’t pay to debate religion with the religious…

2. You stick to the original information

In Why You Think You’re Never Wrong (and What to Do About It), Lifehacker quotes a Scientific American article called Lingering Lies (note: you have to pay for the full article):

Once an idea enters your mind it's hard to get rid of it. Even after you've been proven wrong and know that you are, your brain is wired to stick with the original information. It even influences you subconsciously. This makes it exceptionally difficult to actually feel wrong even when you know you are. Scientific American has the explanation of this phenomenon:

Psychologists asked college stu­dents to read an account of an ac­cident involving a busload of elderly passengers. The students were then told that, actually, those on the bus were not elderly. For some students, the information ended there. Others were told the bus had in fact been transporting a college hockey team. And still others were warned about what psychologists call the continued influence of misinformation-that people tend to have a hard time ig­noring what they first heard, even if they know it is wrong-and that they should be extra vigilant about getting the story straight.

This is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to shake of the frum belief system.

3. Debating only strengthens beliefs

Now don’t get me wrong here. I am not saying that their arguments are better so we’d better stay out of their way. Quite the opposite.

As the author of You Are Not So Smart argues in a post called The Backfire Effect:

Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do it instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them. When someone tries to correct you, tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens them instead. Over time, the backfire effect helps make you less skeptical of those things which allow you to continue seeing your beliefs and attitudes as true and proper.

It is the same reason why you double-check your weighing scale if the weight seems to high but you never double-check it if it tells you that you lost some weight.

Tachles: If someone is wrong and passionately believes he is right, not only are your chances small you will win the argument, but you may end up strengthening his opinions.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Our Local Vaad Hatznius

My son had a siddur party at the kindergarten some monts ago. I find these parties odd; why celebrate the fact that a child receives a siddur if they anyway don’t teach them what they are praying about? Why make such a fuss about some practise that is post-biblical anyway?

At least my son had a good time.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about.

After the party, one of our neighbors (let’s call her lady X) complained that there were women at the party that did not wear any head covering. Now, lady X is really worried about her husband who can’t chas veshalom come to these occasions with untznius women. The fact that these women wear skirts and do not show any cleavage is somehow not what counts. It’s the sexy, uncovered hair of course!

Last week, we received a letter stating that since our kindergarten is Chinuch institution linked to our synagogue, we are kindly requested to be dressed appropriately when bringing our children to kindergarten, especially when it comes to head coverings. All phrased neutrally, as if there were men without head coverings as well.

Needless to say, I was outraged by the letter. Especially since I know that Lady X is very close to two of the three women that signed the letter. The fact that the letter was sent just a few days before the end of the school year only adds more suspicion that lady X was involved since the farewell party is the only thing still happening until the end of the year.

Now why can’t they just be grateful that the less frum people send their kids to their fundamentalist kindergarten? Don’t they realize they are just estranging people from Judaism?

What upset me most was this veil of halacha used. As if God wants you to be dressed in kindergarten the same way you are in shul just because it is a chinuch institution linked to our shul.

Perhaps I should come next time in my tallis. The idiots.

Update: Last time was still mixed, but now it was separated! Also, all the ladies that did not wear a head covering last time, decided to come without one. Bravo! The funniest is that my son danced with a girl from his class as part of the act. Tsss...tsss...past nisht! :P

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Faith Healing or Recovering from Religion

We all know that if a tragedy befalls a person or a group of people, the way to deal with this is to strengthen our beliefs and to do some great deal of introspection. In the old day you would either fast or flog yourself, nowadays your Rabbi will advise you to give tzedakah.

In other words, we ate taught to always see the fault within oneself and never in God. And if we didn't commit any sins, perhaps it was our lack of simcha in learning Torh and doing mitzvos.

A similar way of thinking is the survival strategy of little children that are abused or who have parents that fight a lot. "Perhaps it was my fault?" "Maybe I caused my parents to be upset?" "I must have deserved this punishment. Somehow."

This has crushed many children's souls and stripped them of their self-esteem. And it may take decades to recover from these guilt feelings.

Don't you think it is odd that if things are bad we are to blame ourselves, but if things are going well we suddenly turn the tables and thank Hashem for his abundant blessings and mercy?

When the Jews went down to Egypt, Abraham was supposedly to blame because of his lack of faith. And that must have been a heinous crime because hundreds of thousands of Jewish people were enslaved and tortured because of it. But as soon as we are released from bondage, we thank the same Deity that put us there in the first place. How is that for Stockholm syndrome!

The only way to mature is to hold those authorities accountable for their own deeds, expose their true nature and change our childish thinking.

And then, only then we may experience true faith healing: freedom from religion.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

New Blog on the Block

Skeptical Yid, a frequently heard voice on OTD blogs and a partner in crime (we pun for fun!) has started a blog called On a Different Derech.

A very warm welcome to the blogosphere, ODD (somehow that sounds odd to me)! And may you be zoiche to many koferdika posts, omein!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Aished Jazz Player Insults Atheists, then Gets Grilled

Rabbi Adam Jacobs, who was Aished after he got his degree in music at Brandeis and a Masters in Jazz Performance, has some assertions to make that infuriates atheists and insults people with an IQ higher than the amount of valves on a jazz trumpet. So he probably thought he did a big mitzvah.

In a blog post in the Huffington Post called Atheism's Odd Relationship with Morality, Jacobs displays his ignorance about atheism and reveals a condescending attitude so typical of kiruv clowns.

He starts off bashing Sam Harris, who is probably one of the greatest experts on the topic of morality and atheism:
What I do not yet understand is why he (or any atheist for that matter) makes so many moral proclamations. The average atheist makes certain basic assumptions about reality: that we all exist as a result of blind and purposeless happenstance, that free will is illusory, that there is no conscious "self" and that there is no objective right or wrong. As Dr. Will Provine has said, "[as an atheist] you give up hope that there is an imminent morality ... you can't hope for there being any free will [and there is] ... no ultimate foundation for ethics."
And later on, he writes:
Through my private conversations with atheists, most of whom I would describe as very good people, I am becoming convinced that they don't really buy the party line when it comes to ethics. Like it or not, they seem to have an objective sense that certain things are "just wrong" and it's almost as if those things are built into the fabric of reality. Objective morality requires an absolute standard by which to judge it. The alternative is amorality.
Very much the Aish party line of course.

Thank God therefore (sorry for the pun) for people like Ezra Resnick who wrote a devastating rebuttal called A rabbi’s odd relationship with morality. I highly recommend you read it.

Now, just for the record, I am not an atheist (perhaps I am agnostic, not really clear about that yet), but the argument that there are no real morals without God is really bad. Resnick offers a superb refutation and I hope Jacobs read it:
The Bible repeatedly and unequivocally supports slavery, tribalism and discrimination, and commands the destruction of entire nations including women and children. The idea that all people have intrinsic value and ought to be treated equally — regardless of race, gender, or religion — is a modern, secular value, resisted mightily (to this day) by traditional religion.
His conclusion is priceless:
If Jacobs were not so arrogant and ignorant, he would realize that whatever parts of his own ethics are defensible are products of human rationality and secular thinking. And if he cares more about obeying the purported will of God than about the actual well-being of people in this world, then his morality is a disgrace, and he might stand to learn a few things from some atheists.
I would suggest Rabbi Jacobs to stick to his posts on Jazz and Kabbalah, a topic that would be more in his area of expertise and less likely to insult his target audience.
For more reading material on morality and religion, click here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Tuesday links

It feels like Friday, but it really is still Tuesday. And I have some links that I think are worth sharing today:

  1. Rav Shteinman On Torah, Steak And Ice Cream. One of our ‘gedolim’ pretends not to know what ice cream or steak is and is very insensitive towards a yeshiva bochur that happened not to like learning Torah. Familiar, anyone?
  2. OTD shares some thoughts with us about living at home. Going OTD has ramifications for the family (shidduchim, how do I approach other people’s beliefs?). Many thought to ponder and he deserves our advise.
  3. Daat Emet has a great section of Questions & Answers with some interesting English translations as well. This one is called Mass Revelation (make sure to click the English flag here!) where he refutes some Lawrence Kelemen arguments. He questions the assertion that people always double-check what their religious leaders tell them by referring to some urban legends. Also, he disputes assertion that what needs to be disproven is the fabrication of a story out of a whole cloth, whereas it is more likely a story that developed over time.

Monday, May 16, 2011

College is Assur

I just read Fence Sitter’s excellent  first blog post where she writes:

I did not go to college because I thought that it was assur to do so and then I had three kids by age 23.

This hit a raw nerve in me.

When I was in Yeshiva, I was also brainwashed not to go to University. In my particular yeshiva, the saying went “PENN yifteh levavchem”. In other words, going to PENN (or for that matter any IVY League university) would definitely make you go astray…

After 3 years of yeshivah, I was convinced that going to university would make me lose my yiddishkeit. So I did some 3-year course way below my ‘level’ and I am actually currently working on a job that required only a 3-month course.

(This, of course, is one of the pet ‘proofs’ of the frum community that you don’t really need a degree to earn a living: “I know someone who did not do a degree but earns a lot of money”. The exception should somehow prove the rule. Well, actually, the rule is that people who don’t have some higher degree of secular learning will end up having a job in which they can not support their families.)

Of course, not having studied is not trivial to me.

First of all, there is little possibility for me to advance in my job since I haven’t got the right CV because most jobs in IT require some higher level of studies. OK, I am sure there are jobs that don’t really require that as a rule, but it nevertheless is give as a requirement for pretty much every interesting job I ever looked for.

Secondly, I should easily be able to study according to the career coaching tests I did. It is stam a waste not to have studied and instead doing some lame course where my brain cells were fermenting most of the time, I could have learnt some tachles skills.

But what really eats me is that I never knew what it is like to be in university and never had the intellectual satisfaction of studying something real.

Now that I am married with 2 children, I will have to think of a way to do a bachelor with an Open University program if I am ever to pursue some higher level studying. Since most of them require some 10 hours of week studying (minimum!), Î am currently too reluctant to sacrifice the time I have with my family, especially my children, and my wants and aspirations will have to take a backseat.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Banality of Eden

One of the reasons, I am sure, why they don't start teaching children Torah with Bereshit is because teachers would get too many simple questions they couldn't answer. I mean, if people already can't make up their minds if Adam haRishon had a belly button, what could one answer if asked how they could already converse in Leshon haKodesh on the first day they were created?

In any case, I am reading The Bible According to Mark Twain and I just have to share this genius piece with you. Enjoy!

Today, in a wood, we heard a Voice.
We hunted for it, but could not find it. Adam said he had heard it before, but had never seen it, though he had been quite close to it. So he was sure it was like the air, and could not be seen. I asked him to tell me all he knew about the Voice, but he knew very little. It was Lord of the Garden, he said, and had told him to dress the Garden and
keep it; and it had said we must not eat of the fruit of a certain tree and that if we ate of it we should surely die. Our death would be certain. That was all he knew. I wanted to see the tree, so we had a pleasant long walk to where it stood alone in a secluded and lovely spot, and there we sat down and looked long at it with interest, and talked. Adam said it was the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
"Good and evil?"
"What is that?"
"What is what?"
"Why, those things. What is good?"
"I do not know. How should I know?"
"Well, then, what is evil?"
"I suppose it is the name of something, but I do not know what.""But, Adam, you must have some idea of what it is."
"Why should I have some idea? I have never seen the thing, how am I to form any conception of it? What is your own notion of it?"
Of course I had none, and it was unreasonable of me to require him to have one.
There was no way for either of us to guess what it might be. It was a new word, like the other; we had not heard them before, and they meant nothing to us. My mind kept running on the matter, and presently I said, "Adam, there are those other new words -- die, and death. What do they mean?"
"I have no idea."
"Well, then, what do you think they mean?"
"My child, cannot you see that it is impossible for me to make even a plausible guess concerning a matter about which I am absolutely ignorant? A person can't think when he has no material to think with. Isn't that true?"
"Yes -- I know it; but how vexatious it is. Just because I can't know, I all the more want to know."
We sat silent a while turning the puzzle over in our minds: then all at once I saw how to find out, and was surprised that we had not thought of it in the beginning, it was so simple. I sprang up and said, "How stupid we are! Let us eat of it; we shall die, and then we shall know what it is, and not have any more bother about it."

Can't beat Mark Twain.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Some More Unsollicited Chinuch Advise

beggarSo yesterday, during the annual chometz sale (which in my opinion is a ferking joke anyway), I happened to bump into X. X has feverishly tried to convince us to send our oldest child to the haredi institution as opposed to the normal Jewish school we will send him to next year.

Some things he said:

“I know someone that I think you could talk to. His children also went to the haredi school and still found a job”.

I love the way how people use exceptions to prove their point. Especially since these kids happened to be geniuses and probably were able within no time to make up for what they missed.

Note that X is also a working man but he has been rather unsuccessful. Of course none of his children have a decent education and I am sure that if it weren’t for his wife teaching at the other school (!), the child allowance he receives for his army of kids and other tricky shtick he wouldn’t be able to make ends meet at all.

And why the F does he think I have a problem so that he is doing me a favor referring me to someone to speak to anyway?!

“You are playing with neshamos”

I told him we knew some fine people who had their kids in the non-haredi school and turned out fine. Of course he named one or two kids that went OTD and all I could do was secretly being jealous of the bright kids.

“Better a frum shnorrer than a frei bank manager”

Now this part was quite revealing. Here is an admission that staying within the haredi fold is more important than a child’s human dignity!

A poor man is considered to be like a dead man (Nedarim 64b)

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Chinuch Angst

Yesterday, my wife and I decided against sending our child to the haredi school in our area and to sign our big son up for the local Jewish primary school that has a better chol program although their kodesh program sucks (even the headmaster admitted that his son needed extra lessons!).

Now, although I am an undercover kofer, I still don't want my son to be a 'boor veam haaretz', especially since I respect my wife and we sort of agreed to keep a minimum standard of yiddishkeit at home.

Of course, we are aware of the possible repercussions if our son gets accepted (which is most likely). We already had people come up to us with unsolicited advise, emotional pleas and high expectations. Most likely, this will change our social landscape and although I think it is all right, still, I am afraid to lose people I was very friendly with and for the unknown in the more snobbish, less frum crowd.

Also, we are slightly anxious about the fact that our son will now be confronted with many ‘foreign’ ideas (which is good!) and that I would need to deal with questions I'd prefer not to answer.

In any case, the social 'angst' that I have resulted in the following strange dream last night:

I was called up to the Torah in my old shul at home and before I was able to say anything, the congragation already replied. I was amazed and shrugged my shoulders, and then said "Borechu es Hashem hamevorach" and nobody responded.

I then looked around and suddenly saw that the paroches was taken off, the cover of the bimah was removed and people were sitting on the bare floor, as if it were Tisha be’Av and they were mourning for my soul.

I turned back to my father and he looked at me with a face that did not display any surprise, rather sympathy. I then asked: "This is a dream, isn't it?". And he replied "yes".

I then woke up in a worried state of mind. Not for being afraid to have taken the wrong decision but for that which lies ahead…

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Recommended Posts of the Day

Some of these are not new, but I nevertheless think they are great reads for skeptics:

Vagshal's revision of the history of the Vilna Talmud, or, One of the most egregious examples of censorship I have ever seen, by 'Mississipi Fred McDowell', from On the Main Line. He exposes Vagshall's pious fraud.

Load-bearing Beliefs vs. Cosmetic Beliefs, by Jewish Atheist. He explains the difference between load-bearing arguments (reasons) and cosmetic arguments (excuses) when engaging believers.

Religion is Not Really About Hope, by John Shook from the Center for Inquiry. John explains that: "Non-religious people can live just as positive and hopeful lives as religious believers. Believers doubt this atheist attitude, and love to bring up the topic of heaven in response.".

And here's for some great posts by DovBear:
What are the most absurd Charedi beliefs?
What is Ruach ra’ah?
Yaakov Horowitz’s Campaign – And Why We Need to do More

UPDATE: I almost forgot about this gem!
I’m in Kollel, but My Life is a Sham, by Modern Orthoprax & Heterodox.

If you have any suggestions for good posts, please don't hesitate to mail me at undercoverkofer@gmail.com.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Thursday, March 3, 2011

WTF Moment of the Day

So I am working late with nothing to eat for dinner and am looking for some sneaky treife little something to silence the rumblings in my stomach. The risk is low here, because it is out of town and most people are home by now.

I walk past the train station and see this new sushi bar. I smile and grab the voucher inside my coat pocket. I look inside the store and the asian-looking lady smiles at me and waves. I vaguely recognize the face but am not sure from where.

I enter the store. She keeps on smiling and says hi. I give her the voucher and she shows me the choices.

“These not kosher fish”, she says. And then it cuts like a knife. “You’d probably like vegetarian, right?”. I nod yes because I have no choice anymore.

OMFG. This sushi chick used to work at the local kosher restaurant. We used to come there rather frequently and she even knew our food preferences, our kids…

“And the sauce is parev, have a good night. Shalom!”.

I walked out with a red head and look up to the sky thinking: “If You really exist, what a sunnuvabitch you are!”

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Luz Bone

Returning in the flesh, Jewish style
According to current Jewish tradition, the belief in the resurrection of the dead is a principal article of faith:

“And these are the ones that will not have a portion in the World to Come: One who says that the resurrection of dead is not of biblical origin.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1)

(Incidentally, this means that if you don’t believe in heaven, you will not gain entrance to heaven. Which, I am afraid, won’t really scare anyone that doesn’t believe in heaven in the first place.)

Resurrection creates an obvious problem: After a person dies, the body disintegrates to such an extent that resurrecting it as is will not be feasible. Even better: sometimes there is nothing left of a body, e.g. when a body was burnt.

How does Judaism deal with this theological problem?

As it often does, the answer needs a miracle. The Rabbis believe that there is a bone in the human body from which the body is rebuilt after the resurrection. This is what is called the Luz bone. As stated in Bereishit Rabba 28:3:

“And G’d said: ‘I will wipe away mankind’... Hadrian was [once] grinding bones. He asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah: ‘From where does the Holy One Blessed be He reconstruct man in the future to come?’ He answered him: ‘From [the] Luz of the spine.’ Said he: ‘From where do you know this?’. He said: ‘It has come to me [it was delivered to me as a tradition] and I will show you.’ They tried to grind it in a mill but it was not ground, they burnt it in fire but it was not consumed, they put it in water but it was not softened, they put it on an anvil and he started to beat it with a hammer but the anvil slipped, the hammer was broken and it remained intact.”

Incidentally, muslims also believe in the Luz myth and call it "^Ajbu al-Thanab" (عَجْبُ الذَّنَب). At least something Muslims and Jews agree on!

However, it seems to be that the chiddush of the Luz bone was not entirely ours. The JewishEncyclopedia.com website brings the following:

Possibly the legend owes its origin to the Egyptian rite of burying "the spinal column of Osiris" in the holy city of Busiris, at the close of the days of mourning for Osiris, after which his resurrection was celebrated (Brugsch, "Religion und Mythologie," 1888, pp. 618, 634).

Luzing it
Now everybody knows that if you cremate a corpse that only ashes are left. Even the Ohr Somayach website says in an article on cremation (disagreeing with the Midrash):

“Furthermore, one who has his body cremated will not merit resurrection a fundamental belief of Judaism expressed in Maimonides' 13 Principles of Faith: I believe with complete faith that there will be a resurrection of the dead, when the wish emanates from the Creator. One explanation is that cremation destroys even the extremely hard luz bone from which a buried body is reconstituted.”

The fantasy only starts from there. Same web site, different article:

It [the Luz bone] has curious properties: It receives nourishment only from food eaten Saturday night at the melave malka meal (Mishna Berurah 300:2 in the name of some ‘kadmonim’).

Rabbi Asher Meir from on the OU website adds:

“The Eliah Rabbah relates a remarkable tradition explaining the connection between the LUZ and melave malka. He points out that originally, the entire body was indestructible; Adam and Chava were meant to live forever.

Death was decreed for them only because they ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. However, one tiny bone was not nourished by this fruit, the LUZ, which is only nourished by the Saturday night meal! Thus this bone retained its original, pre-fall immortality.”

Meir goes on to explain that Motzaei Shabbat is the day after Shabbat, the day representing Olam Haba and that Motza’ei Shabbat exudes a higher level of perfection. Therefore:

“this special limb was created to be nourished and cultivated only in an environment of perfected development.”

Note that association between ‘Luz’ and defying death was already hinted at in Bereishit Rabbah 69:8. There it tells us about the city of Luz and its magical powers over death:

“This is the same Luz that the Angel of Death never had power over.”


Bone of contention
Instead of scientificillay trying to  prove where the bone can be found, i.e. testing where this strongest bone really is to be found, there is a difference of opinion. After all, chazal would have nothing to teach if we didn’t have a machloket about every single thing, regardless of its sillyness.

The Arizal and Chida hold that it is located in the place where the knot of the tefillin is placed. This certainly sounds more mystical than some other commentators (including Aruch, Rokeach, Recanati) who believe that the Luz bone is located at the bottom of the spine and that it is nothing less than the tail bone (Coccyx), which incidentally is believed to be evidence for evolution.

And you know that many Rabbis believe that not believing in evolution is almost an article of faith. Just as belief in the resurrection is!

Monday, February 21, 2011

On the Age of the…Gedolim™!

It’s a long-established fact that Lithuanian Rabbis (better known as gedolim™ or giants) have de facto become the Rebbes of the yeshivishe world, including when it comes to brochas (blessings). The Rabbis have been put on such a high pedestal that their followers can’t conceive that they may be making mistakes. Let alone turning senile.

Just consider this: Rav Kanievsky is 83 now, Rav Eliashiv 100 and Rav Steinmann around 99. The question then arises: can one really on such old people for their guidance?

Perhaps below you will find a hint. In this video that was posted on Life in Israel, you can see that Rav Chaim Kanievsky does not have a clue about what Beit Shemesh is, one of the major Jewish centers in Israel. He even asks if it is in America!

That Beit Shemesh is situated in Israel should be obvious since Tenach is full of references to Beit Shemesh:

  • Joshua 15:10
  • Joshua 19:22
  • Joshua 21:16
  • Shoftim 1:33
  • Shmuel I 6:19
  • Melachim I 4:9
  • Melachim II 14:11
  • Divrei Hayamim I 6:44
  • Divrei Hayamim II 25:21
  • Divrei Hayamim II 28:18
  • ...

Now if you will argue that haredim don’t learn much Tenach, they still should know their Gemara. Well, it happens to appear several times, not including the Yerushalmi:

  • Sotah 35a
  • Avodah Zarah 24:2

So there are two possibilities: either our Gadol Hador™ doesn’t know his sources, which would be unforgivable for a ‘gadol hador’…or he is turning senile.

In which case we should probably disregard any psak or cherem issued in his name from now on.

(Still, you could perhaps argue that he was having a bad day. Well, in that case, we should probably disregard any psak or cherem issued in his name since he was born since we don’t know if he was having a bad day or not.)