Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Quote of the Day: More Bertrand Russell

What makes a free thinker is not his beliefs, but the way in which he holds them. If he holds them because his elders told him they were true when he was young, or if he holds them because if he did not he would be unhappy, his thought is not free; but if he holds them because, after careful thought, he finds a balance in their favor, then his thought is free, however odd his conclusions may seem.
-- Bertrand Russell, "The Value of Free Thought"

Friday, July 22, 2005

Karen Armstrong and The Evolution of God

The human idea of God has a history, since it has always meant something slightly different to each group of people who have used it at various points of time. The idea of God formed in one generation by one set of humn beings could be meaningless in another. Indeed, the statement "I believe in God" has no objective meaning, as such, but like any other statement only means something in context, when proclaimed by a particular community. Consequently, there is no one unchanging idea contained in the word "God"; instead, the word contains a whole spectrum of meanings, some of which are contradictory or even mutally exclusive. Had the notion of God not had this flexibility, it would not have survived to become one of the great human ideas. When one conception of God has ceased to have meaning or relevance, it has been quietly discarded and replaced by a new theology. A fundamentalist would deny this, since fundamentalism is antihistorical: it believes that Abraham, Moses and the later prophets all experienced their God in exactly the same way as people do today. Yet if we look at our [three] religions, it becomes clear that there is no objective view of "God": each generation has to create the image of God that works for it.
-- Karen Armstrong, A History of God

I highly recommend Armstrong's books A History of God and The Battle for God.

She's a scholar and fascinating woman -- a former nun, now self-described "freelance monotheist."

You can also listen to an interview with her on NPR's Speaking of Faith.

Quote of the Day: Intellectual Integrity and Social Importance

I mean by intellectual integrity the habit of deciding vexed questions in accordance with the evidence, or of leaving them undecided where the evidence is inconclusive. This virtue, though it is underestimated by almost all adherents of any system of dogma, is to my mind of the very greatest social importance and far more likely to benefit the world than Christianity or any other system of organized beliefs.
-- Bertrand Russell, "Can Religion Cure Our Troubles?" (1954)

Russell said it better than I could. Maybe that's why he was a great philosopher-mathematician and I'm just an anonymous blogger.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Drugs and Sex in the Orthodox Community

A recent post on Hirhurim got me thinking about drugs in the Orthodox community. I wanted to add my perspective, which might be informative to adults who remained Orthodox. Although I never used drugs or alcohol in high school, I knew some people who did. These aren't intended as the only reasons Orthodox kids use drugs, but simply some reasons that Orthodox people should be more aware of.

Inflexible Parenting

Let's imagine a 16 year old Orthodox boy named Shmuely. He's a basically good kid who does well in school and is well-behaved at home. His parents and his school are very religious. Somewhere along the line, Shmuely realizes that he doesn't really believe in Orthodox Judaism or simply comes to feel that it isn't for him. His parents, although basically loving and decent people, would be infuriated if they found out his true feelings, and Shmuely knows it. Perhaps he's not giving them enough credit, but he can't risk finding out.

Because of this situation, which is not his fault, two things happen. One is that Shmuely must create a life which is kept secret from his parents. For now, it might just be a hidden mental life, where he constantly watches what he says around his parents and hides forbidden books in his backpack. The second thing that happens is that Shmuely decides that he is a "bad" kid. Although part of him believes it correct to not be Orthodox, another part of him feels guilty. His parents would disapprove if they knew, and so would virtually every authority figure he knows. Perhaps all of his friends, too. He has no constructive role model he can turn to.

He's a bad kid. A rebel with a secret. In the pained logic of the situation, he might decide that if he's a bad person, he might as well start hanging out with the other rebels in school. If he's going to turn lights on and off on shabbat when his parents aren't around, he might as well try alcohol and marijuana (or worse.) He might also develop depression as a result of feeling estranged from his parents and other role models and turn to drugs in desperation.

What can parents do to prevent this scenario? Ideally, they would establish a relationship where their children know they can always be honest and remain loved. An environment in which Orthodox Judaism is strongly encouraged, but it's understood that if it's not for their kids, it's not for them. Teaching values which aren't completely intertwined with Orthodoxy, so that if a child decides she doesn't believe in Orthodoxy, she'll still believe in being a good person, and will know her parents will still look at her as a good person. A willingness to be open to children who have different personalities and different aspirations than do their parents.

Truth and Fearmongering

There is one more aspect of the problem I'd like to address. Parents must be honest with their children about the risks of drugs, alcohol, and sex. No fearmongering. Kids are smart, and if their parents tell them things which aren't true, not only will they not believe those things, but they'll doubt everything else their parents say as well. Don't tell them that marijuana is just as bad as meth. They probably know people who smoke marijuana, and the fact is that it isn't as dangerous as parents often say it is. Learn the facts, and relate them to your children. Don't say, "Don't you dare drink" or "If you drink, you can find a new house to live in," explain precisely what the dangers of drinking are. As for sex, don't just say "It's forbidden before marriage." Teach them your moral and halakhic beliefs if you want, but also teach them the facts. (e.g. birth control pills don't prevent STDs; you can get HIV from oral sex. I knew Orthodox teens who had sex before anybody told them these important facts.)

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Quote of the Day - Orthodoxy and the Supression of Ideas

The cure for a fallacious argument is a better argument, not the supression of ideas. -- Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World, p. 429

Why is it that Orthodox Jews and Orthodox institutions so often forbid or ignore dissenting arguments rather than making a better argument? What utility does a concept like "kefirah" (heresy) have? Why don't science or secular scholarship have a concept of heresy*?

* "Political correctness" is the closest analogue, but is rarely used to successfully surpress ideas except in conservatives' fantasies. Supporters of "politically incorrect" ideas may be shouted down or even fired, but their ideas are still discussed and refutations are attempted. Examples include The Bell Curve, and the recent comments by the president of Harvard, who by many accounts, is a jerk. But I digress.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Support for People From Ultra-Orthodox or Chassidic Communities Seeking to Enter or Explore the World Beyond Their Communities

People from the ultra-orthodox and Chasidic communities who choose to enter mainstream America currently do so as new immigrants in every sense. They face cultural disorientation and isolation coupled with a lack of a lack of practical and marketable skills. Founded in December 2003, Footsteps addresses the overwhelming needs of this population . Footsteps provides educational, vocational and social services to those seeking to enter or explore the world beyond the insular ultra-religious communities in which they were raised.

I was recently contacted by a really amazing young woman named Malkie Shwartz, who grew up Ultra-Orthodox in Crown Heights and decided to explore the world:

In November 2000, Malkie Schwartz was a panicked young woman torn between her religious upbringing and her quest for the knowledge the "outside" world had to offer. As she began to seriously think about going to college, mingling with diverse people, starting a career and a host of other new cultural experiences, Malkie was overwhelmed by the tremendous sacrifices and losses she experienced. Judith Goldberg Schwartz, Malkie's grandmother, became committed to offering her support during this time; she was the inspiration for Footsteps. Judith was a constant, loving and most valuable source of support up until her death in December 2002.

In December 2003, Malkie gained the support of a Board of Directors and launched Footsteps. The mission: to continue the work of Judith Goldberg Schwartz ---to minimize emotional and psychological trauma, and teach the skills necessary to transition into mainstream society.

Unlike a lot of us who simply write about our experiences, Malkie's really making a difference. If you or someone you know could use some support, or if you want to contribute, go to her organization's website at, call them at 718-626-1330, or write to the P.O. Box listed at the website.

Here is a list of their services:

Social and Emotional Support

* Drop-in peer support group meetings led by a professional fully qualified therapist
* Support groups addressing issues related to: healthy relationships with parents and family members still in the community; health and sexuality; life skills; Jewish identity
* Weekly individual psychiatric counseling from volunteer professionals for clients with a specific clinical need
* Social events organized around a particular cultural theme, art, music or film

Educational and Career Services

* English tutoring (Yiddish is the first language of some people)
* GED high school equivalency preparation
* Guidance with the college application process
* College and Career Information Session
* Resume writing assistance
* Job search information and placement
* Classes teaching basic computer skills
* Job interview preparation

Please note that footsteps "[does] not attempt to persuade anyone to leave the ultra-orthodox world; [they] only help those who turn to them on their own initiative."

Friday, July 15, 2005

Why Do I Argue Against Orthodoxy?

Some may wonder why, since I don't believe in God, I don't just live my life and leave the others to live theirs. The answer is that I believe Orthodoxy causes pain and suffering which could be avoided or alleviated if some of the Orthodox became a little less dogmatic. Mirty has an incredibly moving post about how her Orthodox parents disowned her after she married a non-Jew. However you feel about intermarriage, it's infuriatingly mean and short-sighted to disown your daughter for marrying out. What kind of just or moral God would be in favor of such stupidity? What kind of people would obey such an evil and spiteful God?

I believe that religious people of all stripes would do well to ask themselves the following questions before making big decisions: What is the loving choice? Which choice will lead to more overall happiness and which to more pain? Which serves to be inclusive and which to exclude? Which deprives people of love and which increases it?

When God told Abraham to murder his son, Abraham should have said, "No." Although he didn't, God showed through His actions that He wouldn't ask a man to murder his son. The God of Abraham wouldn't ask a couple to disown their daughter, either.

Quote of the Day - Religion and Comfortable Myths

There is something feeble and a little contemptible about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths. Almost inevitably some part of him is aware that they are myths and that he believes them only because they are comforting. But he dares not face this thought! Moreover, since he is aware, however dimly, that his opinions are not rational, he becomes furious when they are disputed.
-- Bertrand Russell, Human Society in Ethics and Politics (1954), quoted from James A. Haught, "Breaking the Last Taboo" (1996)

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Quote of the Day: Science Vs. Religion

In science it often happens that scientists say, "You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken," and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.
-- Carl Sagan, 1987 CSICOP keynote address

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

There are More Things in Heaven and Earth, [Cross-Currents], Than are Dreamt of in Your Philosophy

Cross-currents makes a particularly weak argument in favor of their "opposition to the gay lifestlye."

Here is a direct quote:

In a nutshell: It is an essential aspect of our Jewishness that we strive to be other-oriented rather than self-oriented. This leads us directly to G-dliness, or is perhaps a subset of G-dliness, as we strive to serve His needs rather than our own. By marrying someone who is wired like me (a male) or even someone not wired like me but nonetheless innately familiar to me (a female, but a close relative of mine) I will not become as other-oriented as I would had I married someone who is completely different than I am. (This also gives context to the linkage between feminism – ‘no differences’ between roles of men and women – and the gay lifestyle.)

Since they are known not to always publish comments which disagree [SECOND update: my comment now shows up there.], I'll simul-post my response here:

With all due respect, I find your rationalization utterly uncompelling. What you seem to ignore is that gay people cannot enter into a good marriage with a member of the opposite sex. It’s just not an option. (Please note that I specified a good marriage.) Clearly, by even your logic, marrying someone, even a member of the same sex, would make you more “other-oriented” than would remaining single. Forbidding same-sex marriage forces people to be LESS other-oriented, and so you should be against a prohibition.

Moreover, proponents of a ban on gay marriage seem to believe that if it’s forbidden, gay people will just go away or magically become straight. This is not the case. There are already gay couples who live together, have children together, and create families together. Banning gay marriages serves only to discriminate against such couples and their children and does not provide any benefit. [I added the next line to my post here for emphasis:] A gay marriage ban does not prevent gay families, it just discriminates against them. You must first recognize that gay families exist and then deal with that reality rather than assuming that if you ban gay marriage, gay people will just disappear.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

A Parable

This one's made the rounds, but it might be new to some of my readers. It's a funny and spot-on, if offensive, parody of fundamentalist religion.

Kissing Hank's Ass

This post is dedicated to Avi of the thefrumskepticsgroup.

Monday, July 04, 2005

On Lively But Narrow Debate in Orthodox Judaism

The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum - even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there's free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.

--The Common Good, Noam Chomsky.

Chomsky's talking about the mainstream media, but his words apply even more to Orthodox Judaism. Jews are famous (at least amongst themselves) for disagreement. There's the saying, "Two Jews, three opinions," and the joke about how if you lived on a deserted island, you'd need to build two shuls, the one you go to and the one you don't go to. People constantly disagree about standards of kashrut, what kinds of clothing to wear, and how much you should spend on an etrog. The center of Orthodox study, the Talmud, is a compendium of such arguments.

But where are the meta-questions? Why don't yeshiva students study the arguments for and against God's existence? Why don't they study textual criticism? Why don't they study the great non-Jewish theologians? Why don't they read philosophy? Non-Orthodox religious scholars do all of the above. Why don't yeshiva students?

One answer is that they already agree on the fundamentals. This is true, but it's missing the point. They agree on them not because of previous study and debate, but because they aren't allowed to believe in anything else. It's not as if in elementary school or even high school, they were introduced to a lively debate about the existence of God and the historicity of the Torah.

If you study Talmud, you must believe in the importance of debate. If all that mattered were the conclusions, we wouldn't study that Bet Shamai said this and Bet Hillel said that. We would just read the final rulings of our corner of Judaism. If argumentation is so critical to understanding the narrow issues, why do the Orthodox passively accept answers to the biggest questions around and not debate them with vigor?

I think Chomsky's on to something.