כי לא מחשבותי מחשבותיכם

כִּי לֹא מַחְשְׁבוֹתַי מַחְשְׁבוֹתֵיכֶם, וְלֹא דַרְכֵיכֶם דְּרָכָי

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.