Wednesday, May 25, 2005

How Orthodoxy Causes Good Men to do Evil

As I see it, the biggest problem with Orthodoxy (or orthodoxy) is its inflexibility. Although some maintain that some rigidity is essential in preserving a culture, I argue that the cost is too great.

Most of us are familiar with the verse from Leviticus:
20:13 If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

If you believe that the Torah was dictated by God and you believe in your heart that homosexuality is perfectly moral, then you have a real dilemma. Either God is wrong, you are misreading the verse, or your belief about homosexuals is wrong. Many Rabbis on the bleeding edge of Modern Orthodoxy attempt to argue that it's our understanding of the Torah that's at fault. Because of the clarity of the verse, however, they don't have much wiggle room.

They start with the obvious step: God doesn't have a problem with homosexuals themselves, but only with males having sex with each other. This has the advantage of being a literal reading of the verse, but it isn't very satisfying. Why would God feel so strongly ("an abomination") about an act of love between two people whom God has nothing against?

The Rabbis often proceed to argue that there is no such thing as a homosexual person, only homosexual behavior. The only problem with this argument is that it is clearly untrue.

The more intellectually honest Rabbis recognize that and argue instead that being a homosexual is analogous to being a person with constant urges to commit theft or pedophilia. As long as he doesn't act on his urges, he has done no wrong. This argument seems consistent with the rest of the Torah but it's a retreat to a stance which we cannot reconcile with our modern belief that homosexuality is moral. It's one thing to command people to resist urges which, acted upon, would harm others; it's quite another to command someone to go his whole life without a love-relationship.

A few, unsatisfied with this result, argue that the verse refers only to anal sex, and that other forms of homosexual lovemaking are acceptable. However, this interpretation makes little sense. If we were to extend this logic to the previous verse, should we assume God allows having a relationship with your daughter-in-law, as long as you don't have vaginal or anal sex?

These bleeding-edge Rabbis are by and large good men*. They sympathise with (or in at least one circumstance are) gay men and they are trying to make the reasonable ruling. They are constrained, however, by their inability to make the obviously correct but Orthodoxly-untenable argument about the verse: it was written thousands of years ago by mortals. As a result, many homosexuals from Orthodox families run away from home, develop emotional problems, are ostracised from their families and communities, or commit suicide.

In this way do good men commit evil.

* A note for my readers unfamiliar with Orthodox Judaism: all Orthodox Rabbis are men.

I highly recommend the documentary Trembling Before G-d, which tells the story of Orthodox and formerly-Orthodox homosexuals.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Quote of the day

There were a lot of conditions for love and affection and continued membership, And they were serious, and they were ludicrous. It was, "You don't wear a yarmulke you can get out. You intermarry, we sit Shiva for you. You eat non-kosher and our children are not allowed to hang out with you." --Shalom Auslander, interview.

Not all Orthodox communities are so rigid. All of the ones I've seen, however, have some sort of automatic immune response* which pushes out the less religious or the differently religious. Non-Orthodox relatives (including children) are not discussed, and when they visit, are hidden away or coerced into conforming.

* "immune response" shamelessly lifted from this unrelated article in The Atlantic Monthly. (Subscription required.)

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Intellectual Cowardice in Orthodox Judaism

One of the problems I have with Orthodox Judaism is the intellectual cowardice. Orthodox children are usually kept separate not only from non-Jewish children, but from non-Orthodox Jewish children, in an effort to maintain a monopoly on the information which reaches them. In the more right-wing branches of Orthodoxy, the children are not permitted to watch television or read secular books. In some cases, they aren't given a good enough grasp of English (I'm talking about second- or third-generation Americans!) to learn anything beyond what they are told by people within their community. In yeshivas as modern as Ner Israel, college-aged students are not allowed internet access in their dorms.

I don't want to focus on the overt intellectual cowardice of censorship. The people reading this post are beyond that. Instead, I'd like to talk about what Chaim Potok (an author I love and respect) refers to as "compartmentalization:"

In The Promise the confrontation is between a fundamentalist religion and another gift to us from our general civilization. A gift right from the very heart of that civilization developed in the Universities of western Europe in the last century. A methodology we call scientific text criticism. It's a methodology that uses all the modern findings of archeology, philology, ancient languages, and the new things that we know about the cultures of the ancient world and their interactions to explore the developement of ancient texts.. It brings all this powerful instrumentality to bear upon the central and sacred texts of the western tradition. The texts of the Bible. For fundamentalists, these texts are in one way or another divinely revealed. They are the word of God to man. We touch and tamper with those texts at our great peril.

Indeed for the Jew the problem is considerably exacerbating, in that for the religious Jew all of Jewish law is predicated upon the idea that the first book of the Jewish Bible, the Torah, is literally word for word revealed by God to Moses at Sinai and may not be touched. The entire legal religious tradition of Judaism is founded upon the infallibility of that text. You are forbidden to touch that text, especially its legal portion, for once you begin to tamper with the text and alter the words all the laws predicated upon those words begin to totter. It's quite as if we discovered one day that there was another version of the American Constitution and that the one we've been working with all along isn't quite the one that they were supposed to have agreed on at that meeting in Philadelphia. To tamper with the sacred text is to do violence to the core of a tradition.

Yet what do you do with the truths that seem to come to us from the discipline we call Scientific Text Criticism? What do you do with the windows that it opens up for us on the development of species?. Do you throw out truths in order to maintain your uniqueness, your allegiance to your particular core? Is that the price that is being exacted from us? That's the tension that an individual like Reuven Malter is caught up in in The Promise. A tension felt by many of the people with whom I grew up, that of a core-core confrontation of ideas.

Reuven Malter resolves this particular tension in the following way. He will take this methodology and apply it only to the text of the Talmud. This is a vast work which took about 800 years to develop and create, and whose earliest texts are concurrent with the latest texts of the Bible. Now you will say to Reuven Malter, "What kind of sense does this make?" If you're going to apply this kind of methodology in order to understand the Talmud, why not apply it as well to the last books of the Bible? "Well," Reuven Malter will say to you, "if you want me to apply it to the last books of the Bible, I will. But then then you'll say to me, "Why not apply it to the books that are adjacent to the last books, after all aren't they also concurrent?" And I'll do that. And you'll say to me, "Why not apply it to those books that are adjacent to those books that are adjacent to those adjacent books?" And before you know it we're inside the first of the three volumes of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, in which the legal portion is supposed to be inviolate. Then we begin to tamper with the legal portion and all Jewish law begins to totter. Therefore, I will simply make a hard and fast rule. The Talmud, yes. I will alter text, change things around, maneuver and manipulate pages in an attempt to understand what is in the Talmud's order, but I will not apply this method to the Bible." Thus Reuven resolves this particular confrontation.
--Chaim Potok: On Being Proud of Uniqueness

I believe that Orthodox Jews of even the most modern and intellectually inquisitive type make similar choices every day. Perhaps they are curious about evolution and they learn all about it but refuse to critically examine the laughably weak Six Days Means Six Eras hypothesis. Or they are troubled by the Torah's clear view of homosexuals and so give wishy-washy interpretations of what the verse truly means. Or they are willing to accept that much of Genesis is metaphorical but afraid to examine what that implies about the rest of the Torah.

Potok continues:
Now I would like to ask if this really an honest way to proceed? Danny Saunders chops up Freud, and Reuven Malter chops up the Bible and the Talmud, each for his own convenience. Is this an intellectually honest way to proceed? And the answer is probably yes. It is certainly the case that many do this kind of thing. And it is absolutely the case that the very founding fathers of Western Secular Humanism did precisely this as they went about creating this super-sophisticated secular civilization in which all of us live today. People like Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, and others reached back into the civilization of the classical world of Greece and Rome and took from them what they regarded as it's loveliest aspects, it's cool and rational thoughts. They took its art, its eclectics, its stoics and thought that they were going to create a new world, a thinking world not locked into throes of religious thought. Those aspects were the ones they made the paradigms of this new civilization. They totally ignored the ugliness and brutality of this ancient world, its orgiastic elements, its lust for power, and its crude religion. They very carefully selected out of classical Rome and Greek culture those elements toward which they felt a significant affinity. They performed the same act of selective affinity that all of us do when we encounter an alien culture. We pick and choose those elements of that alien culture toward which we feel a measure of affinity. Then, adopting those elements, we reject the others, precisely as Danny Saunders does with Freud and Reuven Malter does with scientific text criticism.

Here Potok is himself being intellectually dishonest. Choosing aspects of an ancient culture to emulate while jettisoning the objectionable parts is common sense. Wielding the same logical tool in one area of your scholarship while willfully neglecting to use it on another because one doesn't like the inevitable result is the height of intellectual dishonesty.

Potok concludes:
The Chosen and The Promise, although dealing with how people feel on a daily basis when locked in this kind of confrontation, are essentially exercises in intellectual confrontation. Individuals caught up in that kind of confrontation compartmentalize rather than fuse reality. They section off their life and apply this methodology only to parts of it, but not to their faith system, or its core. The problem is thus by and large intellectually resolved.

I agree with his analysis of how people use compartmentalization to resolve that kind of confrontation, but his last sentence is absurd. The problem hasn't been intellectually resolved; it's been intellectually avoided. Orthodox Jews are often afraid to honestly follow their intellects for fear of what they will find.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Common Questions I - The Cosmological Argument

It seems that the same questions always come up when you mention that you're an atheist. I'd like to treat them one at a time. In this issue:

Everything in the Universe has a cause. Therefore, the Universe must have a cause. Therefore, God exists.

This is traditionally known as The Cosmological Argument. Many very smart people have defended and attacked the argument, but since this is my blog, I'll give my take on it.

There are several flaws with the argument.

1) "Everything in the Universe has a cause." This assumption is without evidence. Are we even aware of "everything" in the Universe? How do we know that there isn't an entire galaxy which, without cause, popped into being ten minutes ago? We must, at the very least, revise the statement to read "Everything in the Universe which we are aware of has a cause." This might be correct, but it certainly has not been demonstrated to be true. Aren't, for example, Quantum Fluctuations uncaused? Isn't anything random?

2) The Universe is not within the Universe, so the argument as it stands can be only a metaphorical argument. One must make an argument as to why the Universe itself must observe the same laws which "things" within the Universe observe. Empiricism fails here since everything we can observe is inside of the Universe.

3) Even if you accept that the Universe must have a cause, that cause is not necessarily a Deity. Maybe outside of the Universe (whatever that means) there are an infinite number of universes which are caused by collisions between particles called universons which were themselves caused by something equally nontheistic in a string of causations which goes back forever. Assuming that a cause is a Deity assumes an intelligence and an intentionality for which the Cosmological argument does not provide evidence. It also assumes that the Deity is itself uncaused and arguments must be brought to explain why the same argument used to postulate the Deity doesn't negate the Deity. That is to say: if the statement "everything in the Universe has a cause" implies "the Universe must have a cause" then doesn't "everything in the Universe has a cause" imply "the Deity must have a cause?"

4) This is not a flaw of the argument itself as much as a flaw in how it is usually used. Even if you were to accept that the Universe has a cause, and that the cause is itself causeless, and that the causeless cause has an intelligence and intentionality, then there is still a long way to go between this causeless cause and any particular god postulated by any particular religion. Other, much more complicated arguments must be brought to justify those claims.


I've realized that since I've been posting so much in response to other people's blogs (particularly Not The Godol Hador) that I might as well Get My Own F-ing Blog.

My relevant background:

1) I used to be an Orthodox Jew.
2) I am now an atheist.
3) I believe that Judaism has a lot of beauty and wisdom, but that it also causes harm.