כי לא מחשבותי מחשבותיכם

כִּי לֹא מַחְשְׁבוֹתַי מַחְשְׁבוֹתֵיכֶם, וְלֹא דַרְכֵיכֶם דְּרָכָי

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Why Kids Flip Out

The Weekly Kefirah once again has a thoughtful insight into why kids from traditional but secular backgrounds may be easily manipulated into kiruv.

An excerpt from his post It's Because of the Book:
The reason why they are so easily victimized is because of the book, specifically in this case the Torah.
The problem arises because while less-fundamentalist versions of Judaism don't necessarily follow the Torah, they still venerate it. They still believe that it was God's divine gift. And they teach this to the kids. The book is important.
Now when the kids grow up, they start looking around and they find some people who actually take the book seriously. Perhaps they say, "If it's God's gift to humanity, then, shouldn't we be taking it seriously?" Because they don't necessarily have the tools (Hebrew) to examine it themselves, they're susceptible to cherry-picked verses and explanations. They can be presented with a very fundamentalist viewpoint, modernized by out-of-context quotes and sketchy interpretations (italics mine). And they eat it up. They eat it up, because they have been taught their whole life that the book is the key.
The only solution, it seems to me, is to create awareness for what outreach does. Rebecca M. Ross does a great job at Jewish Outreach: What Your Rabbi Isn't Telling You.

Also, a positive outlook on skepticism, knowledge about the religion and the tools of critical thinking should help parents to inoculate their children against the dangers of (especially deceptive) kiruv.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Kuzari Hypothesis: Enormous, Easily Available Evidence?

A guest post by Anonymous
When debating the divinity of the Torah, Jewish apologists will inevitably bring up the Kuzari Hypothesis, a proof from mass revelation. Apologetics range from the simple "3 million people saw it so it must be true" to the more sophisticated arguments.

The simple version can be refuted by pointing out that the argument is simply circular reasoning:

  • We know the Torah is true because 3 million people saw the revelation.
  • How do we know that 3 million people saw the revelation?
  • Because the Torah says so and the Torah is true!

The more sophisticated version, as formulated by Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb, goes like this:

"Let E be a possible event which, had it really occurred, would have left behind enormous, easily available evidence of its occurrence. If the evidence does not exist, people will not believe that E occurred."

What he is saying is that people will not believe in an event if there should be evidence of the event but that evidence is lacking. He calls it the Kuzari Principle.

Does Gottlieb provide any evidence for this principle? Not really. It seems to be merely an Argument from Ignorance on his part. He does point out that there are no parallels. But that's simply a red herring. The existence of parallels is irrelevant. What we need is evidence of this hypothesis's truth.

Moreover, it seems that we actually have evidence that the hypothesis is false. Millions of Jews and Christians believe in a worldwide flood and a mass exodus of Jews from Egypt. These events, had they occurred for real, would have left enormous easily available evidence behind. But they didn’t. Yet people still believe in it anyway.

Most will try to rationalize away the evidence for these historical events by claiming that "it was a miracle so it didn't leave evidence behind". Similarly, when presented with the revelation story, the ancient Israelites would have reasoned that the sinful ways of their forefathers, who were idol worshippers, caused them to forget the revalation.

Let's further analyze Gottlieb's hypothesis.

What does Gottlieb mean by "enormous, easily available evidence"? The Jewish tradition? I'm not sure how that could be enormous evidence. And as for easily available, most of the people in those days didn't have a clue of their own history. How many people these days know what their ancestors were doing 500 years ago? And this is in the age of modern recording and documentation!

So in sum, what we have is a story, written in one book by one or more unknown authors, that many people believe to be true. Judaism is no different than any other religion in this regard.

This blog post is has only focused on one aspect of the argument. Much more can be said about it, including the process of myth formation, the gaps in Jewish tradition, and the presence of parallels.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

OTD Interview with Yoni

A good friend of mine, Yoni, was interviewed for the OTD Stories website.

You can find his story here.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Five Stages of OTD Grief

Losing God or losing religion is often awfully close to grieving for a person that passed away. The Kübler-Ross model, according to Wikipedia, "postulates a series of emotional stages experienced by survivors of an intimate's death, wherein the five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance."

Cristina Rad, a well-known ex-Christian atheist activist, describes this model in the context of grieving for God. She also mentions that this model does not always apply to everyone but that it appears to be useful in practice.

Cristina Rad's discussion starts getting relevant to our discussion at 1:18 minutes:

I will summarize the 5 stages below and adapt it to the OTD situation:

1. Denial.

Some of the arguments include:
"I may have questions about emunah and I am not getting the answers that make sense to me, but there were many other people wiser than me who must have thought through these issues and did have a satisfying answer."
"If I would only davven with more kavvanah, I will surely be shown the truth of Judaism"
"If I will stop believing in God, life has no purpose anymore. So this is just a trip of my yeitzer hora"
 "I will reinforce my faith by reading sforim that increase my emunah pshutah (simple faith and ask the Rebbe for a brocha"
2. Anger.

Many OTD people (rightfully so!) experience a lot of resentment. This may even stay with them for many years. It will cause them to want to shock their parents by showing up in the community "dressed like a goy" (read: in modern clothes, not conforming to strict community standards).

Anger can also be expressed verbal shouting matches or by by cutting someone out of your life. Some people get angry at God for letting this difficult situation happen to them. Which makes them want to eat pork on Yom Kipur, for example, just to spite 'Him'.

3. Bargaining. Some people here realize that their old beliefs are a house of cards and exchange them for more benign forms of Judaism, such as modern orthodoxy (often just a stage propelled by apologetic LWMO material by the likes of Rabbi Nathan Slifkin), Reform / Conservative Judaism, hippy-like Rabbi Nachman / Carlebach Judaism, Conservadox, etc. Many turn into deists or seek some other form of spirituality.

Or just choose to live their lives as an Undercover Kofer / Orthoprax person, in order to avoid the pain accompanying leaving the fold.

4. Depression.

Many of us had or are having difficulty dealing with their past and present experiences. The loss of community support, friends and family leads to a terrible sense of loneliness. Imagine a woman losing custody of her children just because she decided not to be frum. Life doesn't make sense to her anymore without her children.

Some are depressed because it can be overwhelmingly hard to adjust to a foreign lifestyle and the reality of having to deal with a world that appears meaningless at first.

5. Acceptance.

This is when people start realizing that "it's going to be OK". Although there may not be a God, or there may not be an absolute purpose in life, we can still take ownership of our own future and create our own new derech.

With the help of a newly created circle of friends (e.g. online social groups) or a good psychologist, as well as possible support from institutions that are specialized in helping transitioning people, OTD persons may find new trust in a better future and come to terms with their new reality.

Please share your personal experience (anonymously, if needed) in the comments section below.

Friday, October 16, 2015

When You Know Something's Fishy...

The Talmud in Berachot 12b forbids thinking about idolatry:
אלא דעת מינים הרהור עבירה והרהור ע"ז מנלן דתניא אחרי לבבכם זו מינות וכן הוא אומר (תהילים יד) אמר נבל בלבו אין אלהים 
But where do we find [warnings against] the opinions of the heretics, and the hankering after immorality and idolatry? — It has been taught: After your own heart (Bemidbar 15:39): this refers to heresy; and so it says, The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God (Tehillim 14:1).
Maimonides, in his Mishne Torah, codifies this principle (Hilchot Avoda Zara, ch. 2, halacha 3):
וכל הלאוין האלו בענין אחד הן והוא שלא יפנה אחר עבודת כוכבים וכל הנפנה אחריה בדרך שהוא עושה בו מעשה הרי זה לוקה ולא עבודת כוכבים בלבד הוא שאסור להפנות אחריה במחשבה אלא כל מחשבה שהוא גורם לו לאדם לעקור עיקר מעיקרי התורה מוזהרין אנו שלא להעלותה על לבנו ולא נסיח דעתנו לכך ונחשוב ונמשך אחר הרהורי הלב מפני שדעתו של אדם קצרה ולא כל הדעות יכולין להשיג האמת על בוריו ואם ימשך כל אדם אחר מחשבות לבו נמצא מחריב את העולם לפי קוצר דעתו כיצד פעמים יתור אחר עבודת כוכבים ופעמים יחשוב ביחוד הבורא שמא הוא שמא אינו מה למעלה ומה למטה מה לפנים ומה לאחור ופעמים בנבואה שמא היא אמת שמא היא אינה ופעמים בתורה שמא היא מן השמים שמא אינה ואינו יודע המדות שידין בהן עד שידע האמת על בוריו ונמצא יוצא לידי מינות ועל ענין זה הזהירה תורה ונאמר בה ולא תתורו אחרי לבבכם ואחרי עיניכם אשר אתם זונים כלומר לא ימשך כל אחד מכם אחר דעתו הקצרה וידמה שמחשבתו משגת האמת כך אמרו חכמים אחרי לבבכם זו מינות ואחרי עיניכם זו זנות ולאו זה אע"פ שהוא גורם לאדם לטרדו מן העולם הבא אין בו מלקות:
All these prohibitions have one common thrust: that one should not pay attention to idol worship. Whoever performs a deed that reflects his concern with [idol worship] receives lashes [as punishment].
The worship of false gods is not the only subject to which we are forbidden to pay attention; rather, we are warned not to consider any thought which will cause us to uproot one of the fundamentals of the Torah. We should not turn our minds to these matters, think about them, or be drawn after the thoughts of our hearts.
In general, people have limited powers of understanding, and not all minds are capable of appreciating the truth in its fullness. [Accordingly,] were a person to follow the thoughts of his heart, it is possible that he would destroy the world because of his limited understanding.
What is implied? There are times when a person will stray after star worship, and times when he will wonder about God's oneness: Perhaps He is one, perhaps He is not? [He might also wonder:] What exists above, [in the heavenly realms]? What exists below [them]? What was before time? What will be after time? Similarly, [one might wonder about] prophecy: Perhaps it is true, perhaps it is not? And [one may also wonder] about the Torah: Perhaps it emanates from God, perhaps it does not?
Since he may not know the guidelines with which to evaluate [ideas that will lead him] to the truth in its fullness, he may come to heresy. The Torah has warned about this matter, saying [Numbers 15:39]: "Do not stray after your hearts and eyes, which have led you to immorality" - i.e., each one of you should not follow his limited powers of understanding and think that he has comprehended the truth.
Our Sages [interpreted this warning]: "After your hearts," this refers to heresy; "after your eyes," this refers to immorality. This prohibition - though [severe,] causing a person to be prevented [from attaining a portion] in the world to come - is not punishable by lashes.
What happened to the myth that Judaism encourages asking questions?

If the Torah forbids you to think about something that may cause us to be drawn after foreign thoughts, what does this say about the strength of its claim?

Friday, September 18, 2015

Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi on the Afterlife

The topic of Yosef Mizrachi's video as posted on Facebook is the afterlife in the Torah. Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi, one of the most famous kiruv clowns appears to claim that the afterlife and rewards in the afterlife is something he can prove from the Written Torah. When I was still frum, I was bothered why the Torah never mentions anything about Olam Haba (the afterlife).

Let's first watch the video (it is just under 4 minutes), and then let's address Mizrachi's claims one by one.

First claim: The Torah speaks about the afterlife in Devarim

Quote: להטיב לך ולבניך עד עולם

The pasuk quoted does not seem to exist, but he probably means this verse in Devarim 12:28:

שְׁמֹ֣ר וְשָׁמַעְתָּ֗ אֵ֚ת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֥ר אָנֹכִ֖י מְצַוֶּ֑ךָּ לְמַעַן֩ יִיטַ֨ב לְךָ֜ וּלְבָנֶ֤יךָ אַחֲרֶ֙יךָ֙ עַד־עוֹלָ֔ם כִּ֤י תַעֲשֶׂה֙ הַטּ֣וֹב וְהַיָּשָׁ֔ר בְּעֵינֵ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃

"Observe and hear all these words which I command thee, that it may go well with thee, and with thy children after thee for ever, when thou doest that which is good and right in the eyes of the LORD thy God."

The context of the verse is the prohibition of eating blood. This is not directed at one person but to the Jewish people as a whole. The promise is that all will go well with you if you refrain from eating blood.

Ad Olam here translates as "forever", but does not necessarily mean anything outside of the physical world. It definitely can't mean someone's specific afterlife. Rather, it refers to the perpetuity of the Jewish people: thee, and with thy children after thee for ever.

Claim 2: The Torah says there is reward in the afterlife

Quote: כי מנסה ה' אתכם לראות התשמור מצוותי אם לא להטיבך באחריתך

Perhaps he meant Devarim 8:2:

וְזָכַרְתָּ אֶת-כָּל-הַדֶּרֶךְ, אֲשֶׁר הוֹלִיכְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ זֶה אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה--בַּמִּדְבָּר: לְמַעַן עַנֹּתְךָ לְנַסֹּתְךָ, לָדַעַת אֶת-אֲשֶׁר בִּלְבָבְךָ הֲתִשְׁמֹר מִצְו‍ֹתָו--אִם-לֹא

And thou shalt remember all the way which the LORD thy God hath led thee these forty years in the wilderness, that He might afflict thee, to prove thee, to know what was in thy heart, whether thou wouldest keep His commandments, or no.
It then says 14 (!) verses down:

הַמַּאֲכִלְךָ מָן בַּמִּדְבָּר אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדְעוּן אֲבֹתֶיךָ לְמַעַן עַנֹּתְךָ וּלְמַעַן נַסֹּתֶךָ לְהֵיטִבְךָ בְּאַחֲרִיתֶךָ׃

...who fed thee in the wilderness with manna, which thy fathers knew not, that He might afflict thee, and that He might prove thee, to do thee good at thy latter end

Lehativecha ba'acharitecha means to reward you later on in life, just like it says (Mishlei 19:20):

שְׁמַע עֵצָה וְקַבֵּל מוּסָר לְמַעַן תֶּחְכַּם בְּאַחֲרִיתֶךָ

I assume he agrees that the author of Mishlei did not mean that you become smart after you die. That would be really weird.

Notice that I am not saying here that 'acharitecha' can not possibly mean eternal life. I am only saying that since it can be explained otherwise, you can't bring 'proof' from there.

Claim 3: The Torah says that there is a world where the souls go

Quote: ותצא נפש רחל ותמת רחל

Again, the pasuk is not quoted correctly. I found it in Bereishit 35:18-19:

יח וַיְהִי בְּצֵאת נַפְשָׁהּ, כִּי מֵתָה, וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ, בֶּן-אוֹנִי; וְאָבִיו, קָרָא-לוֹ בִנְיָמִין. יט וַתָּמָת, רָחֵל; וַתִּקָּבֵר בְּדֶרֶךְ אֶפְרָתָה, הִוא בֵּית לָחֶם.

18 And it came to pass, as her soul was in departing--for she died--that she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. 19 And Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Ephrath--the same is Beth-lehem.

The verses only mention that Rachel's nefesh (life force) went out of her body, it doesn't mention that it is a self-contained entity called soul travels up to another world. Rather, it refers to the life spirit people thought to be in the air (see also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soul_in_the_Bible)

He then proceeds to quote Kohelet which is already after the period of the Babylonians where they learnt the concept of the afterlife from.

Claim 4: The Torah believes there is a separation between body and a soul

Quote (Bereishit 2:7):

וַיִּיצֶר יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָאָדָם עָפָר מִן הָאֲדָמָה וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים וַיְהִי הָאָדָם לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה

"Then the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul."
Same thing. The concept of the breath of the living spirit is a belief that people had that the life force was in the air (proof: you choke someone and he dies), so this life force entered the body and it came to life.

Notice here that it didn't say that man embodied the soul, but he became a living creature. It just says that the body came to life. This does not equal the concept of an immortal soul.

In summary:

- We have no proof that the Torah mentions anything about an afterlife
- And nothing either about a reward in that afterlife
- Mizrachi is wrong. Again.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Tradition, Interrupted

One of the main claims asserted by the Jewish outreach industry is that the chain of tradition was never broken. This is the prerequisite for the Kuzari Principle, the idea that the revelation at Sinai is likely to have happened because there has been an uninterrupted chain from father to son that it happened. And if it weren't true, this claim would have been rebutted by their children.

Note that Gottlieb never claims that his principle is proof for the revelation at Sinai but, in his words, "There is enough evidence in favor of the revelation to make it reasonable to accept."

For a clearer understanding of the Kuzari Principle, see Rabbi Gottlieb's The Kuzari Principle.

I find this 'principle' a lot of hogwash.

One reason is that the reason that Jewish people believe in the revelation at Sinai has more to do with indoctrination than a tradition from father to son. In fact, most people I know were just taught that the revelation of Sinai was true without a personal testimony of their fathers saying that they have a tradition that their great-great-great-(...)-grandfathers received the Torah at Sinai.

The other reason for doubt comes from nothing less than...Tenach!

Short history lesson: Nehemia was the governor of Persian Judaa during the Second Temple period. The Persian king Artaxerxes allowed Nehemia to rebuild the walls and the city of Jerusalem. He served in Judea for 12 years in total.

During the rededication of the Temple, on the first day, they read from the 'Book of Law'. On the second day, they continue to read in this book:

יד  וַיִּמְצְאוּ, כָּתוּב בַּתּוֹרָה:  אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה בְּיַד-מֹשֶׁה, אֲשֶׁר יֵשְׁבוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּסֻּכּוֹת בֶּחָג בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי.14 And they found written in the Law, how that the LORD had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month;
טו  וַאֲשֶׁר יַשְׁמִיעוּ, וְיַעֲבִירוּ קוֹל בְּכָל-עָרֵיהֶם וּבִירוּשָׁלִַם לֵאמֹר--צְאוּ הָהָר וְהָבִיאוּ עֲלֵי-זַיִת וַעֲלֵי-עֵץ שֶׁמֶן, וַעֲלֵי הֲדַס וַעֲלֵי תְמָרִים וַעֲלֵי עֵץ עָבֹת:  לַעֲשֹׂת סֻכֹּת, כַּכָּתוּב.  {פ}15 and that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying: 'Go forth unto the mount, and fetch olive branches, and branches of wild olive, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written.' {P}
טז  וַיֵּצְאוּ הָעָם, וַיָּבִיאוּ, וַיַּעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם סֻכּוֹת אִישׁ עַל-גַּגּוֹ וּבְחַצְרֹתֵיהֶם, וּבְחַצְרוֹת בֵּית הָאֱלֹהִים--וּבִרְחוֹב שַׁעַר הַמַּיִם, וּבִרְחוֹב שַׁעַר אֶפְרָיִם.16 So the people went forth, and brought them, and made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, and in the broad place of the water gate, and in the broad place of the gate of Ephraim.
יז  וַיַּעֲשׂוּ כָל-הַקָּהָל הַשָּׁבִים מִן-הַשְּׁבִי סֻכּוֹת, וַיֵּשְׁבוּ בַסֻּכּוֹת--כִּי לֹא-עָשׂוּ מִימֵי יֵשׁוּעַ בִּן-נוּן כֵּן בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, עַד הַיּוֹם הַהוּא; וַתְּהִי שִׂמְחָה, גְּדוֹלָה מְאֹד.17 And all the congregation of them that were come back out of the captivity made booths, and dwelt in the booths; for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so. And there was very great gladness.

Now, there are two interesting points here:
  1. In verse 15, it appears that olive branches and branches of wild olive need to be used to make sukot (booths), and then writes 'as it is written'. I did not know of any references made or any commentators that explain it satisfactorily. It appears that these verses were lost in tradition.
  2. From the fact that it says in verse 14 that they 'found' it written in the Torah that the Children of Israel should sit in booths, it seems that they were unaware of this fact. A fact that, nowadays, any school child knows. Furthermore, it appears that they did not dwell in booths since the days of Joshua: "for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so."
Both points, the 'lost' verses about the olive branches and the 'forgotten' tradition of dwelling in booths clearly demonstrate that tradition was, in fact, interrupted.

Click here for more articles on the weakness of the Kuzari Principle.

Thanks to Yoni Rachok for this quotation.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Excellent Podcast about Atheism and Morality

You can find the Point of Inquiry podcast, titled "Phil Zuckerman: Those Normal, Upstanding Nonbelievers" here.

Some great points Zuckerman makes:

  • If you base your morality from scripture, it's not morality but obedience. Following orders is not morality. It is moral outsourcing.
    I am reminded of Nazi Germany. Morality was sacrificed on the altar of obedience to a totalitarian leader.
  • Who is more moral? A person who understands why something is wrong and acts responsibly or someone who sticks to the rules out of fear of punishment and the promise of rewards
  • Morality is derived from:
    1. Empathy (evolutionary path)
    2. Our parents
    3. Our cultural norms and values
    4. Personal experience.
Phil Zuckerman, a 3rd generation secular Jew, is a professor of sociology at Pitzer College and specializes in the sociology of secularity. He is also the author of Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old QuestionsSociety without God, Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion and other books.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

New Blog: OTD Stories

There's a new kid on the block: A blog that aims to publish interviews with OTD people called OTD Stories. Check it out here.