Friday, March 30, 2007
Corresponding with a few of these frum skeptics recently, I got to wondering what my life would have been like if I'd married my last Orthodox girlfriend before I'd gone too far down the path away from Orthodoxy.
We would have had an Orthodox ceremony, of course, making it as liberal as I could get away with, but still containing language I could not agree with and some antiquated notions of marriage. I would have suffered through sheva brachos.
After the wedding, I suppose I could have attended shul the way I did anyway at that time in my life: go for the short Friday night service and try to enjoy the singing, and time my arrival perfectly on Saturday morning so that services were just letting out and it was time for kiddush (i.e. socializing.) We would have attended Shabbat lunches at other couples' houses and had them to our own. I would have made kiddush and sat through benching either letting my mind wander while moving my lips or actually saying some of the words to pass the time.
What of my intellectual explorations? Would I have dared to read Dawkins? To join the Internet Infidels Discussion Board? Or would I have settled with a hodge-podge of Jewish mysticism and apologetics? I doubt could have actually believed that stuff, but I probably would have been careful not to look at it too hard. What would have happened when I discovered the J-Blogs?
How would I act at work? Could I ever be comfortable as "the Orthodox guy?" What would I feel about explaining why I couldn't eat bread next week or why I couldn't attend the company social event? How could I answer my gay coworkers when they asked about Leviticus?
And then, kids? How would I feel at a bris? Would I have chuckled to myself during the pidyon haben? Or felt cheated if my daughter only got a simchat bat?
And then, preschool. How would I feel when my 3 year old came home and told me that God is everywhere? And when he asked me to say the shema?
Could I have handled it when she got a little older and asked why her Rabbi said that all non-Jews secretly hate Jews on the inside? Or what the word schwartze means? Or whether I would slaughter her if God commanded me to?
Then what if she asked me why the boys got to learn Gemara when she was stuck in Navi? And what exactly is a "firmament," andyway? And why does God command the murder of women, children, and even sheep? And is it really wrong to be gay?
What if my wife wanted me to start getting to shul earlier? And being a good role model for my children on Yom Kippur? And what if the gabbai asked me to lead the prayers or read from the Torah? What if a friend asked me to be a witness at his wedding and I knew that I wouldn't be a kosher witness because I turned lights on and off on shabbos? Would I start to hate being asked to lead the benching?
And what if my son didn't want to read his bar mitzvah portion? Could I insist? Would I? What if he went to summer camp and came back with a black hat and a well-worn set of mishnayos? Could I learn with him while holding my tongue about what I really thought? What if he decided my wife and I weren't being strict enough about kashrut and that our oven wasn't kosher enough? What if he went to yeshiva in Israel and wanted to stay a second year? A third? To eschew college and become a Rabbi?
Or what if he started reading Dawkins and was asking questions about evolution and the age of the universe? Could I pretend that saying "yom" means "age" solved the problem? What if he honestly believed in Orthodoxy but wondered what the deal was with the Documentary Hypothesis? What if he became an atheist while my daughter became ever more frum?
How long could I stay silent? What would its toll be on me and on my marriage and on my kids?
What of grandkids?
I'm just glad I got out when I did.
Zookeeper-Benjamin asks, "What kind of Atheist are you? What are the foundations for your beliefs?"
Technically, I am a strong atheist, which means I hold "the philosophical position that God or gods do not exist. It is contrasted with weak atheism, which is the lack or absence of belief in God or gods, without the claim that God or gods do not exist." Make no mistake: I do not claim that I can prove that there is no God; it is simply my belief. However, please don't write and tell me that I have "faith" that there is no God, since "faith" has implications which don't make sense for atheists. One can't have "faith" in nothingness.
So if I can't prove it, why do I believe it, especially since I was raised an Orthodox Jew? Well, I can describe how I arrived at atheism and perhaps that will do. As early as I can remember, I believed in God, since that's what I was taught by my parents. I was a curious child, though, and I always had questions. I was also cocky and didn't believe anything just because somebody said it. My first doubts probably started when some of my early rebbeim said things which I knew to be untrue or believed to be immoral. Being curious, if a Rabbi contradicted a science book, I did more research. In the end, I found the science books to be more credible than my Rabbis, who, while intelligent and learned in one particular field, were demonstrably ignorant in other matters. Once I realized that it was possible for Rabbis (and secular teachers, too, of course) to be incorrect, I became a skeptic. If I was taught something which seemed wrong and was testable, I would test it. If it weren't testable, I would do research and find the most credible sources I could come up with.
Eventually, I realized that if Rabbis could be wrong, perhaps the Torah could be wrong. After all, what made me believe it was the word of God other than the claims of Rabbis I knew to be fallible? I started thinking about Breishit (Genesis) since it makes many claims which are relatively testable as compared to stories about people who supposedly lived 3000 years ago. The six days' account of creation seemed to contradict Evolution, which I had come to believe in through my readings, but I could reconcile the two if I sort of squinted and told myself, "Well at least the Genesis story is presented in mostly the right order."
The first thing that really tripped me up was the idea of the firmament:
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. (Genesis 1:6-7.)
What was this? First of all, this seems to imply that the Earth is the center of the Universe. But more importantly, it clearly states that some firmament actually exists and there's water on top of it. To my understanding, no such thing exists. I was troubled. I went to one of the smartest Rabbis I knew and I asked him what the firmament was. He said, "I always thought of it as the stratosphere." Huh?? That didn't make any sense at all. Combined with the other curious parts of the Genesis story like the fact that it took place in 6 days, that there was no mention of dinosaurs or of mass extinctions (pre-Flood), that it doesn't appear to agree with evolution, that it doesn't seem to realize that the Moon is a satellite nor that the Earth is a planet, I decided it must not be literally true.
Well, so, maybe it was metaphorical. Maybe it was just a pretty story. But then what about the rest of the Torah? Was the Flood just a story? How about Abraham? I was a big reader of fiction as well as science books and the stories in the Torah certainly read like fiction. Don't Adam and Eve, Cain and Able, Isaac and Ishmael, Isaac and Esau sound like fiction? Aren't they a little too pat to be historical record? Joseph and the multicolored coat? Come on, now. What about Egypt? How do I know that even happened?
I read about other religions, past and present. I wondered, did the Greeks and Romans literally believe in their mythologies? How were my Rabbis so sure that the Torah is true but the New Testament is false? Why were the Muslims as confident that they're right as we were that we were? Wasn't it unlikely that I was just born into the right denomination of the one true religion? Didn't Muslims and Baptists and Catholics all think the same thing? Why hadn't all the smartest, best, and most learned people in the world converted to Orthodox Judaism if it's so obvious that we were right?
I was going to have to look at it objectively. I couldn't directly test whether a given religion was correct, since religions are so slippery. You disprove one thing, and the apologists say, "Oh no, that doesn't mean what you think it means. It means [this entirely different thing.]" I started to think about that phenomenon a little bit more. It was interesting that as scientific knowledge grew, religious claims seemed to get milder and milder. Long ago before videorecorders and Richter scales, Moses supposedly split a sea. Before we knew that the Earth rotates, the Greeks believed a god pulled the sun around the earth each day. The Egyptians thought the sun was God. Jesus supposedly walked on water. But it was fascinating that whenever we figured out how something works, religion simply accepted our explanations and shifted their claims to less impressive events. We started understanding weather better, and religions stopped claiming that the gods made it thunder and rain, at least directly. God Himself (or Herself or Theirselves) became less specific. God became abstract.
Okay, so maybe God was this abstract Thing which didn't directly cause thunder or give people leprosy for lying anymore. Maybe the Torah stories were just for the people who lived back then, so that they would understand. But if God wrote the Torah, or if God even talked to Moses, or talked to anyone, why didn't He take some easy steps to alleviate suffering? Couldn't he have just explained about tiny, invisible bugs that cause illness? If God exists at all, why does He allow such misery in the world? Why the earthquakes and the holocaust and child slavery? Why does the Torah hate gay people so much? Why does it allow slavery and condone genocide (e.g. of the Midionites and Amalek?) Even if it's not literal, even if the Torah is just allegory, and even if God inspired it rather than dictated it, shouldn't it be a better book? Shouldn't it be more moral?
I stopped believing the Torah wasn't written by people living thousands of years ago. I mean, what would it look like if it had been written by people who lived in Israel thousands of years ago? Wouldn't it reflect their ignorance and their knowledge and their hangups and prejudices? Doesn't it?
I started thinking about whether the Universe could exist in the absence of God. I read Stephen Hawking's book A Brief History of Time. I noticed that although he went out of his way to deny being an atheist, his book presents a good case for a Universe that runs by itself according to a bunch of math and physics and randomness. Hawking didn't know what caused the Big Bang, but it sure looked like the Universe has been taking care of itself since then. I read Carl Sagan. I realized how incomprehensibly huge the Universe is. I decided there's no reason for such an enormous Universe if the whole point of creation was humanity. I read Dawkins. Obviously, he was a fanatic atheist with a chip on his shoulder. But he made a lot more sense than most of the religious apologists I'd read.
Then I started reading philosophy. I read Bertrand Russell's Why I am Not a Christian and a whole bunch of stuff online. I found that Russell's and others' arguments made a lot of sense to me.
Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I no longer believed in God. I can't prove that God doesn't exist, but as John McCarthy wrote, "An atheist doesn't have to be someone who thinks he has a proof that there can't be a god. He only has to be someone who believes that the evidence on the God question is at a similar level to the evidence on the werewolf question."
Thursday, March 29, 2007
Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaryah said: "I am like a man of 70 years, and yet I was never able to merit to prove that one is obligated to mention the Exodus at night, until Ben Zoma explained it thusly: It says in the Torah, 'In order that you shall remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt, all the days of your life.' 'The days of your life' refers to the days; 'All the days of your life' refers to the nights." And the Sages [i.e all the other rabbis -JA] say: "'The days of your life' refers to this world; 'All the days of your life' indicates the time of the Messiah."
Many people, including many Orthodox Jews, ridicule the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade because of its reliance on a "penumbra" of rights in the Constitution that weren't spelled out. But how much more ridiculous are the bulk of Orthodox interpretations of the Torah?
I'd love to see what the Sages would have done with the Sixth Amendment:
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
Justice Ben Azaryah said: "I am like a man of 70 years, and yet I was never able to merit to prove that one has the right to a public trial in civil cases until Justice Ben Zoma explained it thusly: "It says in the Constitution, 'In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial.' 'Criminal prosecutions' refers to criminal prosecutions. 'All criminal prosecutions' refers to civil suits." And the legal scholars say: "'Criminal prosecutions' refers to criminal prosecutions. 'All criminal prosecutions' refers to military tribunals."
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
Several people have written me to thank me for my blog and to tell me that they hold beliefs like mine, but haven't been able to leave Orthodoxy for various reasons. Although I know my story won't make the trip easy for those who decide to leave, perhaps it will be of some help.
I'll begin after my year at a yeshiva in Israel*, which is where my journey away from Orthodoxy began to gather steam. I was about twenty years old, having known no institution or community beyond the Orthodox ones. Growing up, virtually all of my friends, classmates, and potential adult role models had been Orthodox, so I didn't really know what I was doing. I was scared, but it was becoming more and more clear that I had no choice. I no longer believed in God or the mitzvot and hadn't enjoyed going to shul in years, so I had to either swallow my fear and get moving or live my life knowing I'd never be completely true to myself.
The first thing I did was enroll in a secular University, which might be the perfect place to make a new beginning. I fell in with a mostly Conservadox group, whose Judaism made me feel instinctively at home and whose open-mindedness allowed me some freedom. I dated a few women ranging from semi-Orthodox to almost Orthodox who weren't put off by my atheism.
I gradually began to engage in those behaviors forbidden in Orthodoxy but which didn't conflict with my morals.** I started playing sports on Shabbat and "graduated" to watching them on television. I began to eat dairy out*** with my Conservadox friends. I stopped wearing a kippah, but put it on whenever I went home to my old neighborhood or to a kosher restaurant. (Since Orthodox people are often most likely to violate their stated beliefs for sexual behavior, my sex life didn't start to be, but rather continued to be, non-kosher.)
After college, I moved to an area with a sizeable Orthodox population and half-heartedly participated socially in the community. I had a lot of trouble, because I hated going to shul, but social life revolved around it there. Eventually, my last semi-Orthodox girlfriend and I broke up (for mostly unrelated reasons) and I realized I had to make my break. Somewhere around this time, I began eating non-kosher meat, and a few months later, started sampling pork, shrimp, cheeseburgers, and everything else. I kept kosher at home until I moved out of that apartment.
One day, I gathered up my courage and sat down to have The Big Scary Talk with my father. I told him that I was no longer religious**** and that I was moving to a less Orthodox area. He was very upset. First, he seemed to be in simple denial and then he tried to talk me out of it. I told him that I had to follow what I believed in and he said he understood, although he remained obviously disappointed. I said goodbye and went home, leaving him to break the news to my mom, who I sensed would be less upset.
Over the next few months, I spent some time with my parents, including a Yom Tov, when we had a lot of time to talk. I tried to explain how I felt and why I had made the choice I had, although I didn't spell out my atheism. They didn't disown me, but they continued to be disappointed, telling me that they wished they'd been better parents and that if they had it to do over again, they would raise me differently. They didn't explain how, although I think they meant they would have been stricter with me and sent me to a more right-wing school. I tried to convince them that it wasn't their fault, but without much success.
It made me sad to know that my parents were disappointed in me. They showed it not just by telling me so outright, but also by obfuscating when religious friends and family innocently asked them how I was doing. They didn't say so, but it was somehow implied that I continue to act religious in their presence. Of course I was willing to not watch t.v. at their house on Shabbat, but having to park my car around the block to come to Yom Tov meals which they invited me to made me feel that they were ashamed of me. Which, of course, they were.
Eventually, I came to the realization that even though my parents were clearly embarrassed by me, it was not my fault. I was being true to myself and I had gone out of my way not to hurt anyone unnecessarily. If my parents couldn't learn to accept me as I was, it was their failing, not mine. It still hurt, but it didn't make me feel guilty anymore.
It took me a couple of years to build any sort of real social life, since I no longer fit into my old community and still felt like an outsider in the secular world. Eventually, I started making good friends at work, and then friends through those friends, and finally I didn't feel so alone. I began dating, choosing to date only Jewish women, at least for a while, to prevent my parents from exploding. (I don't think my father would forgive me if I married a non-Jew. If I were already in love with a non-Jewish woman, I wouldn't break up with her because of his wishes, but although I find his attitude bigoted and immoral, I'd rather not fight that battle with him if I can avoid it.) Eventually, I found a great non-Orthodox Jewish woman whom I love.
I remain relatively close with all of my Orthodox family and some of my Orthodox friends. As I've become more comfortable with who I am, it's become easier for me to deal with them. I refrain from arguing religion with them (which is why this blog serves as a good outlet for me) while not allowing them to guilt me into religious activities I don't wish to participate in. I don't rub my lack of religiosity in their faces, but I don't deny who I am, either. I think my confidence shines through and most Orthodox people I know from my former life seem to respect me.
* It's common for Orthodox Jews to spend a year at a yeshiva in Israel following high school.
** My morals essentially consist of The Golden Rule, which means I have no ben adam l'makom rules (i.e. rules which govern Man's relationship with God, e.g. Shabbat or not wearing wool and linen), but several extra ben adam l'chaveiro ones (those which govern Man's behavior towards Man, e.g. helping the needy and not stealing.) I may expand on this subject in a future post.
*** That's Orthodox vernacular for eating anything but meat products at non-kosher restaurants.
**** Orthodox people generally use "religious" and "Orthodox" interchangeably.
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Growing up, it wasn’t about the money. It wasn’t about the cars. It wasn’t about the bling-blau that it is today.
It was simple.
It was, “How did MJ feel? How did he feel right at this moment after he hit that game-winner?”
That’s what I wanted to know. Like, “What’s going though his mind?” Like, “How does he feel crying, kissing that trophy, with the champagne on his head?”
That’s what I wanted to know about.
Chuck Klosterman on why we look the other way about steroids in the NFL.
Shawne Merriman weighs 272 pounds.
This is six pounds less than Anthony Muñoz, probably the most dominating left tackle of all time. Shawne Merriman also runs the 40-yard dash in 4.61 seconds. When Jerry Rice attended the NFL draft combine in 1985, he reportedly ran a 4.60; Rice would go on to gain more than 23,000 all-purpose yards while scoring 207 career touchdowns...
After the summer of 1964, the Beatles started taking serious drugs, and those drugs altered their musical performance. Though it may not have been their overt intent, the Beatles took performance-enhancing drugs. And this is germane to sports for one reason: Absolutely no one holds it against them.
Brian McCormick on why Kobe should be MVP.
If you took Nowitski off the Mavericks, Dallas makes the play-offs. If you took Nash off the Suns, Phoenix makes the play-offs. If you took Kobe off the Lakers, they would fall to the bottom of the Western Conference along with Memphis...
And, now the most talented player in the League is doing things nobody has done in forty years while in the thick of a play-off race...
I'm more concerned with the fact that we're torturing than with the idea that doctors are involved, but the article provides some disturbing details about what the government is doing in our names. If you have no sympathy for al-Qhatani, as I don't, remember what Mencken wrote:
The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.
Some of the medical involvement in torture defies belief. In one of the few actual logs we have of a high-level interrogation, that of Mohammed al-Qhatani (first reported in TIME), doctors were present during the long process of constant sleep deprivation over 55 days, and they induced hypothermia and the use of threatening dogs, among other techniques. According to Miles, Medics had to administer three bags of medical saline to Qhatani — while he was strapped to a chair — and aggressively treat him for hypothermia in the hospital. They then returned him to his interrogators...
Of the 136 documented deaths of prisoners in detention, Miles found, medical death certificates were often not issued until months or even years after the actual deaths. One prisoner's corpse at Camp Cropper was kept for two weeks before his family or criminal investigators were notified. The body was then left at a local hospital with a certificate attributing death to "sudden brainstem compression." The hospital's own autopsy found that the man had died of a massive blow to the head. Another certificate claimed a 63-year-old prisoner had died of "cardiovascular disease and a buildup of fluid around his heart." According to Miles, no mention was made that the old man had been stripped naked, doused in cold water and kept outside in 40-degree cold for three days before cardiac arrest...
Other doctors just looked the other way, their military duty overruling the Hippocratic Oath. One at Abu Ghraib intervened to ask guards to stop beating one prisoner's wounded leg and quit hanging him from an injured shoulder. He saw it happen three times. He never reported it. In Mosul, according to Miles, one medic witnessed guards beating a prisoner and burning him by dragging him over hot stones. The prisoner was taken to the hospital, treated and then returned by doctors to his torturers. An investigation into the incident was closed because the medic didn't sign the medical record and so he couldn't be identified.
After a while, you get numb reading these stories. They read like accounts of a South American dictatorship, not an American presidency. But we learn one thing: once you allow the torture of prisoners for any reason, as this President did, the cancer spreads. In the end it spreads to healers as well, and turns them into accomplices to harm.
Monday, March 26, 2007
Rabbi Mordechai Breuer fashioned the tools that enabled Orthodox students to confront the literary problems raised by modern biblical criticism. He entered a situation where the Orthodox approach was an apologetic one, in which the Torah was to be defended against heretical assault.
By the time he died last month, Rabbi Breuer had transformed the encounter with kefira* into a positive act of Torah study. Where his influence is felt, the literary questions posed by the Bible critics are treated no different from other interesting questions endemic to Torah study: questions are a spur to chiddush** and deeper understanding rather than a cause for discomfort or panic...
As I commented on R' Student's blog, at first I was excited to see an Orthodox rabbi honestly taking on the Documentary Hypothesis. It reflects the kind of courage I wrote about yesterday. However, upon reading the entire eulogy, it became obvious that R' Breuer was simply a more sophisticated apologist than the Orthodox rabbis who came before him:
In the academic world this aspect of Rabbi Breuer’s work was received with a thundering silence. Naturally those scholars committed to the Documentary Hypothesis for religious or intellectual reasons would not be eager to discard the consensus, especially as Rabbi Breuer offered not an all out refutation, but rather an alternative method, compelling only to those already inclined to embrace Torah miSinai*** on other grounds. [emphasis added --JA]This sounds very much like the kind of apologetics offered by those who attempt to reconcile the Genesis creation story with modern science, if more sophisticated. Apparently impressed by the questions that led scholars to come up with the Documentary Hypothesis, R' Breuer chose not to dismiss it out of hand as the overwhelming majority of Orthodox rabbis have done, but to engage with it, to perform a scholarly judo move of sorts, embracing it while defanging it at the same time.
Here's the thing about the Documentary Hypothesis and Orthodox Judaism. If Orthodox Judaism is true, then the Torah was given in its entirety (minus perhaps the last eight verses) to Moses. This, from a plain reading of the text, is an obvious falsehood:
- Nowhere in the chumash (the five books) itself does it say that Moses received the Five Books, only that he received laws and the Ten Commandments.
- Many verses of the chumash were obviously written much after Moses's time, using anachronistic names for places as well as referring to events in Moses's time as a long time ago.
- The text of the chumash reveals clues of multiple authors from different times and places.
Sunday, March 25, 2007
So if I used to be a regular commenter on your blog and I've been MIA lately, please let me know. :-) I read way too many blogs to keep track of without a blog reader.
What good is this frumkeit* that is cultivated simply by wearing blinders?
Personally, I think that the person who has quested and tried and dealt with various issues in an attempt to act as a committed Jew but who ends up non-observant is more authentically religious than the one who maintains his religiosity by avoiding everything that could potentially undermine it.
More simply, in the words of a very wise person I once knew, "There is a heresy that is holier than observance."
I might qualify that statement by stating, "than some types of observance."
So perhaps I may argue, even though it may seem revolutionary, that the very person who denies God or who becomes non-observant in his own way is actually the person with the deepest, most committed, most authentic relationship to Him.
Thanks, Chana! :-)
I've long felt the same way, of course. If God exists, he surely prefers an honest and courageous atheism to a sheltered and cowardly observance. As Thomas Jefferson wrote:
Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.
There are courageous and honest religious people. I think Chana is one of them. Too many, though, shy away from difficult questions. I believe the overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jews fall into that category. If you're the kind of person who hasn't taken a position on evolution, or dismissed the Documentary Hypothesis without even an investigation of the subject, you probably do too. If you've honestly investigated and found them untrue, you might be wrong, but you aren't a coward.
* Orthodox Judaism
Saturday, March 24, 2007
Friday, March 23, 2007
Here's my first dating tip for men:
Exaggerate your height. If e-dating, add an inch or two to your profile. In person, get some shoes or inserts that make you taller. I discovered this by accident when I got orthotics to take care of some chronic knee issues. Being taller will help you at work, as well. Tall people make more money, get more promotions, and are much more likely to be elected president.
People don't mean to be so shallow; it's just in our genes.
If you're worried about ethics or what she'll think when you take your shoes off for the first time, remember that your date is not only wearing makeup and the most flattering clothes she can find, she's possibly wearing a padded bra and control-top pantyhose as well. Not to mention the fact that she might be wearing heels. :-)
While we're on the topic of language, how is it that, if the Torah was given to Moshe and copied painstakingly by hand ever since, the shapes of the letters have changed so dramatically?
I honestly don't know (or don't remember) if Orthodox sources provide an explanation for this.
Thursday, March 22, 2007
Language prescriptivism is an interesting form of elitism which allows people to feel themselves not only better, but smarter than others. Whether it's liberals making fun of Bush's pronunciation of nuclear, whites' mocking of black speech patterns, or simply bloggers attacking their opponents' grammar or spelling rather than their arguments, they are misguided about what language is and how it works.
If language is confusing, it's a problem. If language has "bad" style (for example if it's boring or cloying) is a subjective issue, but fair to note. Language is almost never, though, wrong.
"Damn, he dumb."
"Can everyone take out their books, please?"
"I don't feel good."
"Will all y'all shut the hell up?"
All of those sentences are perfectly understandable but often derided. What they generally reveal, though, is not stupidity, but the speaker's region and/or social group. There are undeniable advantages to certain styles in certain situations, for example speaking "standard" English at job interviews, "redneck" if you're Larry the Cable Guy, or "ebonics" if you're an inner-city black kid who doesn't want to be called an "oreo" by your peers.
Then there are the even snootier complaints made about the following kinds of sentences and phrases:
"To boldly go where no man has gone before."
"The train will be moving momentarily."
"Who did you go with?"
"Which begs the question of..."
Only the second and fourth can arguably be described as unclear, but they are so common, it's almost always snobbery rather than confusion that spurs complaints. The first and third are "wrong" only in the sense that some people have arbitrarily declared them as "wrong," in exactly the same way that one might argue that placing the fork on the right side of the plate is "wrong."
Sally Thompson at Language Log quotes an interesting comment about the nature of prescriptivists from linguist Lauren Squires, which I will reproduce in part:
Sociolinguistics is concerned with the question not only of how people speak, but of how they think about how they and others speak. You thus have people studying language attitudes, seeking to identify and understand what people think about linguistic variation: Why do Michiganders think they speak the most "correct" form of English in the United States? Why do people judge speakers with certain non-English-accented English as less socially desirable, less intelligent, or less agreeable than speakers without a discernible accent? How many Detroiters fail to recognize "Canadian" phonological features within their own speech community? (For excellent references on this topic, see Harold Schiffman's page of bibliographies on Language Attitudes.)
Then there's the language ideologies work, which goes beyond what people think about language to ask what social processes underlie the attitudes, often by appealing to political systems, historical influences, socioeconomic structure, and semiotic processes that turn language into a carrier of social meaning in various ways. Language ideologies are often defined as sets of ideas, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that influence how people use language (by imposing some sort of schema about what is "right," "appropriate," or whatever), and they also serve as speakers' means of rationalizing or otherwise explaining the language that they or someone else uses.
In the case of the United States, one can make a pretty good argument that our dominant language ideologies include ideas about there being one standard style that is considered "correct," that language can be something subject to judgments of "correctness" to begin with, and that nation-states are best off when their citizens speak one unified language. Studies on standardization, and particularly with regard to English, point out that in literate societies, ideas of "standard" become even more salient and powerful because of the tendency of print to "freeze" language or at least impose stratification on its use, elevating some formal or allegedly generic style above more colloquial or regional ones.
You can also argue that the written form serves as a trigger for linguistic awareness, on which there seems to be less research but which is of no less importance (if you ask me!). In order to make a usage gripe, you have to be aware of the linguistic feature you're griping about. You may be more aware because you were taught something about it, or you may notice it because it varies a lot among your acquaintances, or there may be something that makes it especially salient because of the kind of linguistic thing it is (phoneme, morpheme, word, spelling, etc.). You may also be more aware of it because it's been culturally packaged: invoking a term from Dennis Preston's work, a linguistic feature or language variety can become a folk linguistic artifact that circulates through the culture, picking up different social connotations along the way. Standard English is most certainly one of these, and so are "Ebonics," "Spanglish," "Southern drawl," and "Netspeak."
In public discourse (and educational settings), these are framed as distinct varieties to be either aspired to or avoided, having either high or low mainstream social prestige. We can pinpoint some contents of the artifacts, too, in media reports: about change in language as language decay, about linguistic "revolution" as socially harmful, about how no one sends thank-you notes any more, about how multilingualism is a threat to the health of English and Americans, about how emoticons are rampant in school essays, about how you'd better understand your teenagers' online lingo fast, before it's too late and they're pregnant or in rehab or, worse, cavorting with a sexual predator.
So, the gripers. You have people who believe that there's a correct way of speaking and writing, and who impose that belief on others. For them, what they are doing is fighting for the truth, tradition, and the Natural Order of Language. While lots of them may have some interest in language and its inner workings, for most, language is simply a material/symbolic system that gets roped into social Othering. Language is accessible, convenient, and flexible for use in doing so: it's always there, it's always changing, and it's always going to be socially differentiated. With linguistic variation, it seems that the grass is always greener on the other side, if you're talking about a usage associated with an appealing group of people (swoon those Aussies with their exotic diphthongs!), or it's greener on your side, if you're talking about a usage associated with a somehow undesirable group (shakes fist those Mexicans/teens/rednecks and their bad English!).
When you give gripers an outlet for their opinions, they're going to feel validated, and they're going to enjoy the feeling that their comments are helping to preserve the Natural Order. Maybe they see it as their duty, or maybe it's just a playful pastime. Either way, it's not (entirely) their fault, and it reflects issues beyond what people are taught about language. It's the reality of the social divisions we are constantly reproducing — every day, all the time, each of us. While I agree that it would be nice to get some teachable moments out of the gripes, I'm not certain that it would ultimately change anything until some deeper cultural issues were addressed.
Language Hat is another great blog that often touches on some of these issues. I also enjoy Mixing Memory.
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
I'm going to face a tough decision some day, assuming I have any boys. Circumcision strikes me as not only absurd but kind of barbaric. It doesn't rise to true barbarism like female genital mutilation because there's no serious harm caused and it actually has some minor health benefits, but you're still cutting off part of a baby's penis for no good reason.
Why a tough decision? I'm not sure. Mostly because I suspect my parents would be devastated to a degree not matched by my leaving of Orthodoxy. It would be more along the lines of me converting to Christianity or marrying a non-Jew. But I can't see myself having my son's penis cut just to please my parents. Anyway, we'll see. I have to get married first. :-)
Circumcision is one of those things that really brings home the fact that Judaism was originated by a bunch of primitives thousands of years ago.
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
Description of one of today's featured videos:
Clay Aiken Montage - "Everything I Do"
This is a religious Montage of Jesus Christ being crucified and Clay Aiken sings "Everything I Do, I Do It For You" from his latest "A Thousand Different Ways" CD.
The video has a rating of four out of five stars as of this posting, with three people voting.
I wonder if sites like GodTube and Conservapedia will cause more people to leave religion. I can imagine teenage Christians thinking that if this is the Christian version of YouTube, Christianity must be pretty lame.
Via Oliver Willis.
Monday, March 19, 2007
It takes courage to push yourself to places that you have never been before... to test your limits, to break through barriers. The day came when the risk it took to remain tight inside the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.
Cheesy, yes. But it describes well the time when I became open to myself and others about the fact that I was no longer an Orthodox Jew.
If a biological basis is found, and if a prenatal test is then developed, and if a successful treatment to reverse the sexual orientation to heterosexual is ever developed, we would support its use as we should unapologetically support the use of any appropriate means to avoid sexual temptation and the inevitable effects of sin.
Lots of folks are upset about this. I'm not sure I am. I would strongly oppose government-mandated treatment of fetuses to ensure heterosexuality, but I don't think I could fault parents for wanting their babies to be straight, given a reasonable choice. While I don't think homosexuality (including homosexual sex) is immoral, there's no doubt that being homosexual can be challenging and if parents want to spare their children that particular difficulty, I don't see what the problem is. It would be kind of sad and possibly harmful to have less sexual diversity in the human race, but I don't think that is sufficient reason to disallow it.
What about genetic/hormonal treatment for other traits? As science progresses, we might be able to alter fetuses in ways we can now barely imagine. I wonder whether Rev. Mohler would support parents who want to treat fetuses for tendencies towards being religious, for example?
Which of the following traits should parents be allowed to alter, assuming a treatment becomes possible? Which should they be encouraged or discouraged from altering?
- Fatal disease
- Chronic but manageable disease
- Eye/hair color or other minor cosmetic changes
- Deafness/blindness (preventing or causing, as some deaf parents might wish)
- Tendencies towards addictions, obesity, or anorexia
- Tendencies towards being generous
- Athletic ability
- Tendencies towards or away from religion
- Tendencies towards or away from fundamentalist thinking
- Skin color, epicanthal folds, and other distinguishing racial characteristics
- Lactose intolerance
- Tendencies towards happiness or optimism
- Tendency towards political party
- Tendencies towards wanting to be a doctor
- Having six fingers or toes
- Musical ability
- Sexual appetite or lack thereof
- Tendencies towards introversion/extroversion, conscientiousness, openness, agreeableness, or other personality traits
Some of my thoughts were inspired by Reason Magazine's discussion.
Sunday, March 18, 2007
Mis-nagid pointed me to this article:
Although questioning their religion is a complex and often painful ordeal, those straying from Orthodoxy have lately found a flourishing number of options to help smooth their paths. The Internet has spurred a mass of fringe Orthodox blogs and e-mail lists with names like “Jewish Atheist” and “Frum Skeptics.” In 2003, a nonprofit organization called Footsteps was formed to offer resources like G.E.D. classes and support groups for people moving away from strict Orthodoxy.
For at least a decade, Mr. Schonfeld has been an unofficial anchor for the drifting. An erudite man with a long, gauzy beard and a wry smile, he has lived almost his entire life in Borough Park. In the 1990s, a computer and electronics store that he owned in the neighborhood became a nightly hangout for some local residents who, though they may have appeared indistinguishable from other Hasidim, were freethinkers and misfits who sought a place to speak openly and not feel judged. The rabbi of the Millinery Center Synagogue, aware of Mr. Schonfeld’s rapidly growing community, offered him space for a weekly gathering, which has since mushroomed in size, its presence publicized primarily through word of mouth and an e-mail list.
Over time, the gathering began to draw people who had no apparent links to Hasidism but were warmed to discover, as Mr. Schonfeld said, half joking, “that Hasidic people are not Martians.” Among them were local professionals, downtown hipsters, curious academics and spiritual seekers. Some became frequent visitors, intrigued by a taste of a world that many of their grandparents and great-grandparents long ago jettisoned. Mr. Schonfeld compares the scene to a city of refuge, a Biblical reference to a town where a man who had accidentally killed another could gain asylum.
Read the whole thing, it's interesting. I particularly like the "city of refuge" analogy.
By the way, first-time readers, check out this index I made almost a year ago for posts you might find interesting:
Welcome, Rabbis! (And a Round-up of Previous Posts)
Thursday, March 15, 2007
I wrote the abuse report and gave it to my superior. And that abuse report, as far as I know, has disappeared. It doesn’t exist anymore.
“For instance, one technique that was approved was called environmental manipulation. It’s really unclear what that means exactly. He took it to mean that we could leave them outside in the cold rain, or we could blast rock music and bombard them with strobe lights for days at a time, or use those things in combination. The document didn’t really give us guidance, although that is what it was meant for...
“We were in this murky area. . . . They always tell you, if you’re given an illegal order it’s your duty to refuse to follow it, but we were in a place that we didn’t know what the legal limit was, so we didn’t know what to do.”
We were getting prisoners who had gotten seriously fucked up. We were getting prisoners from the navy SEALs who were using a lot of the same techniques we were using, except they were a little more harsh. They would actually have the detainee stripped nude, laying on the floor, pouring ice water over his body. They were taking his temperature with a rectal thermometer. We had one guy who had been burned by the navy SEALs. He looked like he had a lighter held up to his legs. One guy’s feet were like huge and black and blue, his toes were obviously all broken, he couldn’t walk.
Lagouranis says the MPs were “willing and enthusiastic participants in all this stuff. A lot of the guys that we worked with were former prison guards or they were reservists who were prison guards in their civilian life. They loved it. They totally wanted to be involved in interrogations. It actually was a problem sometimes. I remember I would be standing guard at three in the morning outside of the shipping container with a prisoner inside and people would come by and they would know what was going on because they could hear the music and maybe see the lights. And they’d want to join in. So I’d have four sergeants standing around me, and I’m a specialist, and they want to go and fuck the guy up, and I would have to control these guys who outrank me and outnumber me and they have weapons and I don’t—because I’m guarding a prisoner I don’t have a weapon. It got really hairy sometimes and I couldn’t call for help because there was nobody around. I remember at one point the MPs came over from the facility and they were banging on the shipping container, one guy got on top and he was jumping up and down, they were throwing rocks at it, they were going inside and yelling at the guy. And I was like, ‘How do I control this situation?’”
But there were two brothers in particular that we were going on pretty hard. . . . We had some significant evidence on these guys which was so rare—we almost never had evidence on anybody. . . . We went on them hard for almost a month, I think, and these guys were just completely broken down, physically, mentally, by the end of it. One guy walked like a 90-year-old man when he was done. He was an ex-army guy, he was a real healthy young man when he came in, and by the end he was a mess. Psychologically they couldn’t focus on things. Their emotions would change all the time. They were obviously showing signs of deterioration.”
If a man can’t focus, can he answer questions? “It made interrogation harder, but we weren’t getting information from these guys anyway. The person who was ordering all this stuff, the chief warrant officer, he never saw these prisoners, so there was no way for him to understand what was going on.” The warrant officer’s response to a lack of information, Lagouranis says, was simply to add another layer of abuse.
After the [Abu Ghraib] scandal broke, they stopped torturing people in prisons and they would torture them before they got to the prison. They would either torture them in their homes or they would take them to a remote location . . . The marines had a location—they called it the ‘meat factory’—they would bring them there and they would torture them for 24 or 48 hours before they brought them to us, and they were using techniques like water boarding, mock execution, they were beating them up, breaking their bones, whatever. It was bad, in particular the First Recon—they’re sort of like marine special forces, an elite unit [attached to the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, known as 24th MEU]. Every time they went on a raid it didn’t matter who they were bringing back, they would just fuck these guys up. Old men, 15-year-old kids, they all came with bruises and broken bones. One guy came with a blister on the back of his leg. It was big, it was horrible, a burn blister. They’d made him sit on the exhaust pipe of a running truck.
Lagouranis says he once interrogated four brothers who’d been arrested during a general search because soldiers had found a pole in their house that they’d argued could be used for sighting targets for mortars. The brothers, interrogated separately by Lagouranis, contended they used it to measure the depth of water in a canal, and there was nothing incriminating in the house. Though he was convinced they were telling the truth, his superiors would not release the men. A man arrested because he had a cell phone and a shovel met a similar fate. The army contended the shovel could be used to plant an IED and the cell phone could be used to help set it off, and though Lagouranis bought his explanation, nothing he said shook that belief. The army wanted to be able to boast about the number of terrorists apprehended, and the four brothers with the striped stick, the two who ran the aid station at the potato factory, and the man with the shovel were close enough.
The vast majority of the men and women in Lagouranis’s MI brigade remained at Abu Ghraib and a nearby base for their entire tour, and at the end of that year they published an intelligence report he says was full of empty claims. “It was like, ‘The top ten detainees and what we got out of them,’ ” Lagouranis says. “It was all bullshit. And that’s for an entire year of interrogating thousands of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. They got nothing out of that place. That’s not just my assessment—you can talk to anybody I worked with over there. The main reason for that is because 90 or 95 percent of the people we got had nothing to do with the insurgency. And if they did we didn’t have any good evidence on them. And the detainees knew that and they knew they didn’t have to talk to us.” A February 2004 Red Cross report based on the estimates of coalition intelligence officers said that 70 to 90 percent of the prisoners were innocent.
“I got nothing in Iraq,” says Lagouranis. “Zero.”
Lewis says he was required to submit a detainee abuse report whenever a prisoner complained of mistreatment, no matter where it had taken place. He recalls patterns of torture emerging, with specific methods peculiar to specific locations—there was a Ramadi pattern, for instance, and another for Fallujah. He recalls that prisoners complained of having been sodomized by a broom or squeegee handle in one location, and although he’d report it he’d hear the same allegation several months later from another prisoner detained at the same location. “Not once did I hear of any arrests” as a result of an abuse report, he says, though it was clear to him that the detainees were not repeating a rehearsed story.
“It was obvious that certain abuse was happening all over the country,” he says. “Every day I saw things that to so many of us interrogators seemed so normal and part of a routine that nobody said anything. It takes a unique clarity to stand up and say what everyone thinks is so normal is actually abhorrent. I think I did well under the circumstances, but no one reported what they should have when they should have—including me.
“I saw barbaric traits begin to seep out of me and other good and respectable people—good Americans who never should have been put in that position to begin with. They have two choices—disobey direct orders or become monsters. It’s a lonely road when everyone else is taking the other one.”
Via Andrew Sullivan, via Stephen.
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
The National Association of Evangelicals has endorsed an anti-torture statement saying the United States has crossed "boundaries of what is legally and morally permissible" in its treatment of detainees and war prisoners in the fight against terror.
In a phone interview Monday, Cizik insisted the statement was not a critique of President George W. Bush and his administration. He said the motivation was to send a message to the rest of the country and the world that evangelicals and other U.S. citizens do not support torture.
But the evangelical writers criticize the Military Commissions Act, which Bush pushed through Congress last year to set up a Defense Department system for prosecuting terror suspects. The evangelicals condemned provisions of that act that allow indefinite detention for some suspects and does not always hold intelligence officials to the same standards as the military.
Quoting a wide range of sources including the Bible, Pope John Paul II, Elie Wiesel and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, the authors say the federal government has a moral obligation to follow international human rights treaties that the U.S. has endorsed.
"As American Christians, we are above all motivated by a desire that our nation's actions would be consistent with foundational Christian moral norms," the document says. "We believe that a scrupulous commitment to human rights, among which is the right not to be tortured, is one of these Christian moral convictions."
On Friday the Florida Supreme Court declined to hear Richard Paey's appeal of the 25-year sentence he received for "drug trafficking," which in his case amounted to obtaining narcotics for the treatment of his own severe chronic pain with prescriptions his doctor denied writing after they became the subject of a police investigation. Reason contributor Maia Szalavitz notes at The Huffington Post that "Paey—who suffers both multiple sclerosis and from the aftermath of a disastrous and barbaric back surgery that resulted in multiple major malpractice judgments—now receives virtually twice as much morphine in prison than the equivalent in opioid medications for which he was convicted of forging prescriptions."The Huffington Post has more on the dissenting judge:
In the decision the state Supreme Court refused to review, a Florida appeals court nevertheless ruled that his sentence was not "grossly disprortionate" enough to violate the constitutional ban on "cruel and unusual punishments." At the same time, the court urged Paey to seek clemency from the governor as a remedy for a sentence that a dissenting judge called "illogical, absurd, unjust, and unconstitutional." That, aside from an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, seems to be the only recourse still open to him.
In a jeremiad of a dissent, Judge James Seals called the sentence "illogical, absurd, unjust and unconstitutional," noting that Paey "could conceivably go to prison for a longer stretch for peacefully but unlawfully purchasing 100 oxycodone pills from a pharmacist than had he robbed the pharmacist at knife point, stolen fifty oxycodone pills which he intended to sell to children waiting outside, and then stabbed the pharmacist."
Maia Szalavitz quotes an expert's opinion on her own blog:
Writing in support of clemency, leading academic pain specialist Russell Portenoy, MD, said, "the information available indicates that any questionable actions [Paey] took, actions which led ultimately to his arrest, were driven by desperation related to uncontrolled pain."
He noted that such cases "may increase the reluctance of professionals to treat pain aggressively."
Portenoy wrote that despite the fact that Paey required high doses of opioids, those doses were "clearly in the range used by pain specialists in this country." He stressed that, "The number of pills or milligrams of an opioid required for analgesia says nothing about any of the negative outcomes associated with these drugs-including abuse, addiction and diversion-and reference to the amount of drug as evidence of these outcomes by regulators or law enforcement should not be condoned."
The American people should be ashamed at the damage we do in the name of the "War on Drugs." Let's hope Florida Gov. Charlie Crist steps up and does the right thing. While we're dreaming, let's hope the legislators in Washington start showing either the ability to reason or some basic compassion and rewrite or discard the obscene laws that make this sort of thing possible.
Monday, March 12, 2007
Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) is first Congress member in history to acknowledge his nontheismIt's a start, I guess. I'd like to see audio, video, or at least a text confirmation on his website.
For Immediate Release
Contact: Lori Lipman Brown, (202) 299-1091
March 12, 2007
There is only one member of Congress who is on record as not holding a god-belief.
Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), a member of Congress since 1973, acknowledged his nontheism in response to an inquiry by the Secular Coalition for America (www.secular.org ). Rep. Stark is a senior member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and is Chair of the Health Subcommittee.
In October, 2006 the Secular Coalition for America, a national lobby representing the interests of atheists, humanists, freethinkers, and other nontheists, announced a contest. At the time, few if any elected officials, even at the lowest level, would self-identify as a nontheist. So the Coalition offered $1,000 to the person who could identify the highest level atheist, agnostic, humanist or any other kind of nontheist currently holding elected public office in the United States.
In addition to Rep. Stark only three other elected officials agreed to do so: Terry S. Doran, president of the School Board in Berkeley, Calif.; Nancy Glista on the School Committee in Franklin, Maine; and Michael Cerone, a Town Meeting Member from Arlington, Mass.
Wednesday, March 07, 2007
If only Bush were as smart as the stick figure. In actuality, Bush would insist NG4 is a legal move, would accuse any officials who disputed his move of being cowards, would modify the chess rulebook with a pen, would imply the editor of the rulebook is a traitor, and would replace all chess officials with members of his Texas staff.
Sean Hannity would broadcast interviews round-the-clock with a group called Chessplayers for Truth, The New York Times would feature an article on the front page called "Chess Rulebook Was Incorrect, Officials Say," by Michael Gordan, and FOX would display the text, "Are Liberals too Wussy to Play by the Rules?"