Monday, December 31, 2007

Links: Intermarriage, Atheism, Ron Paul

  1. Orthodox Rabbi turned secular humanist defends interfaith marriages.
  2. Ask Metafilter: "Religion fulfills certain psychological needs. How do non-believers manage without it?"
  3. Ron Paul: "It's a theory, the theory of evolution, and I don't accept it as a theory."

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Don't Forget the Reason for the Season!!

I've been staying away from this kind of in-your-face criticism of religion lately, but since I'm too polite to respond to the well-meaning secretaries at work who want me to remember that Jesus is the reason for the season*, I'll let off some steam here.

*Presumably, they believe He was conceived under some mistletoe, born on December 25th under an evergreen tree, surrounded by holly and lights, with gifts from a jolly old man who rode in on flying reindeer, 33 years before He was resurrected among bunnies who lay brightly-colored eggs?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Mike Huckabee Has Been Replaced!

We all know that Mike Huckabee claims to have lost 120 pounds through exercise and diet. Some people out there are claiming that he really lost the weight by having bariatric surgery and is just lying about his hard work. But I've discovered what actually happened.

Ladies and gentleman, the awful truth:

Mike Huckabee has been replaced by actor Kevin Spacey.

Here is Huckabee before the "weight loss:"

Here is "Huckabee" after:

And this is actor Kevin Spacey:

Any questions?

This explains why Huckabee seems like such a nice guy now when he was clearly an insane hatemonger just a few years ago.

Mike Huckabee is Friggin Crazy

Okay, so he doesn't believe in evolution. Fine, lots of people don't. Then we found out he wanted to quarantine people with AIDS... in 1992. Alright, that's a little out there, and pretty callous for a so-called Christian.

But check out these quotes from his 1998 book Kids Who Kill: Confronting Our Culture of Violence.
It is now difficult to keep track of the vast array of publicly endorsed and institutionally supported aberrations—from homosexuality and pedophilia to sadomasochism and necrophilia.

Wait, what?

The Huckster's not a fan of us atheists either:
Men who have rejected God and do not walk in faith are more often than not immoral, impure, and improvident (Gal. 5:19-21). They are prone to extreme and destructive behavior, indulging in perverse vices and dissipating sensuality (1 Cor. 6:9-10). And they—along with their families and loved ones—are thus driven over the brink of destruction (Prov. 23:21).

Gotta love a presidential candidate who thinks (Gal. 5:19-21) is a good citation in a book about the causes of teen violence.

Via Andrew Sullivan.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Myth of the Importance of Executive Experience

Is a governorship better training than a career in the Senate?

A website called infoplease has a convenient list of all the presidents' previous job experience. Here is my summary of the last hundred years:
Non-executives: Ford, Nixon, LBJ, JFK, Truman, Harding.

High-level Executives: Bush W, Clinton, Bush HW, Reagan, Carter, Eisenhower*, FDR, Hoover, Coolidge, Wilson, Taft, TR.

(Methodology: Non-executive jobs: Senator, Vice President. Executive: Governor, Cabinet Secretary, Supreme Allied Commander, Director of CIA.)

I don't see any correlation between executive experience and competent presidency. Do you?

*Eisenhower gets bonus points for his super-awesome previous title of Supreme Allied Commander. "President" sounds like a step down.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Best Line of the Debates So Far

"Hillary, I'm looking forward to you advising me as well."

You can donate to Obama here.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Torture, the Rule of Law, and our Miraculous Bill of Rights

I can imagine a scenario in which torturing someone would be the lesser of two evils -- even the moral thing to do, absent other factors. So can many other people. But "other factors" are not absent when we're debating the use of torture authorized by the United States government. The exact same reasoning could be applied to allowing police officers to use torture or to search without warrants or to... really, anything.

Sometimes I wonder how our founders ever managed to get the Bill of Rights ratified. In today's America, almost every one of those ten Amendments would be too controversial to pass. Let's look:

First: I'd bet 30% of Americans would support outlawing Islam, for example, and a larger number would no doubt support currently unconstitutional restrictions on speech and press. Probably more than the third necessary to sink the Amendment would support some governmental "respecting" of Christianity.

Certainly more than a third of Americans would want to restrict it, at least to ban "assault weapons."

Third: Not really an issue any more, but I can't exactly picture Limbaugh or Hannity defending it. Refusing to let the government house our heroic soldiers in your home? Talk about unpatriotic!

Fourth: Are you kidding me? We don't support this one even though it actually got ratified.

Fifth: The spinmeisters would just put forward one repeat murderer who would have been locked up but for a technicality in his first and only trial. No way this would be ratified.

Sixth: You want to give that murderer the right to counsel????

We're going to waste our tax dollars going through a trial by jury for that pedophile????

Eighth: "Cruel and unusual???" We just want to castrate that child rapist!

Ninth: LOL. Drugs. Sodomy. Privacy. LOL.

Tenth: See Ninth.

Can you imagine any of these passing today? What's changed? What does this have to do with legalizing torture? Is there a difference between torturing a suspected "terrorist" and a suspected serial killer? If so, why?

Friday, December 07, 2007

Happy Ha... Cha... Festivus!!

The hardest part about not being Orthodox any more is how to pronounce words like Hanukkah/Chanukah. If I say "Chanukah" but am clearly neither Orthodox nor Israeli, I'm self-conscious because it's like I'm being pretentious. And people will actually make fun of me. And saying "Hanukkah" just feels wrong.

Biblical names are also fun. I'll be in the middle of a conversation every now and then and have to think, "How do you pronounce Esau, anyway?" "Laban? Is that Lavan in English?"

Mitt Romney and Atheists

One of the few positive things I've said about Bush is that he consistently includes "people of no faith" when he's speaking about religious diversity in America. I honestly appreciate that.

From his speech on Mormonism the other day, it appears that Mitt Romney would not do the same if he were elected.

Washington Post Editorial:
No Freedom Without Religion?
There's a gap in Mitt Romney's admirable call for tolerance.

Friday, December 7, 2007; Page A38

RELIGIOUS liberty is, as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney declared yesterday, "fundamental to America's greatness." With religious division inciting violence across the globe, he is right to celebrate America's tradition of religious tolerance. He's right, too, that no one should vote against him, or for him, because he is a Mormon. We only wish his empathy for religious minorities such as his own extended a bit further, to those who do not believe in God.

It is regrettable that 47 years after John F. Kennedy felt the need to promise voters that his Catholic faith would not dictate his conduct as president, Mr. Romney felt compelled to offer similar assurances that "no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions." It's regrettable, too, that the skepticism and even hostility some voters feel toward Mormonism has been played upon by the man who has emerged as his chief rival in Iowa, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who is running commercials that proclaim him to be a "Christian leader." That is why Mr. Romney felt the need to detail his creed: "I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind." If, as Mr. Romney correctly says, the country's founders took care not to impose a religious test for any public office, a candidate's belief, or not, in the divinity of Christ ought to be irrelevant.

Where Mr. Romney most fell short, though, was in his failure to recognize that America is composed of citizens not only of different faiths but of no faith at all and that the genius of America is to treat them all with equal dignity. "Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom," Mr. Romney said. But societies can be both secular and free. The magnificent cathedrals of Europe may be empty, as Mr. Romney said, but the democracies of Europe are thriving.

"Americans acknowledge that liberty is a gift of God, not an indulgence of government," Mr. Romney said. But not all Americans acknowledge that, and those who do not may be no less committed to the liberty that is the American ideal.

And shame on Huckabee, for his "Christian leader" campaign.

Update: Ezra Klein sums it up brilliantly:

In a speech Romney was forced to give because he feared unfair discrimination, Romney did not stand against intolerance. Instead, he simply asked that it not be directed against him, a man of faith. You can be intolerant, but do it to them, over there. They're even more different.

It's like when black activists oppose gay rights -- all the more infuriating because they of all people should know better.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Iran Not Pursuing Nukes; Bush and Cheney's Push for War is Over

U.S. Finds That Iran Halted Nuclear Arms Bid in 2003
A major U.S. intelligence review has concluded that Iran stopped work on a suspected nuclear weapons program more than four years ago, a stark reversal of previous intelligence assessments that Iran was actively moving toward a bomb.

The new findings, drawn from a consensus National Intelligence Estimate, reflected a surprising shift in the midst of the Bush administration's continuing political and diplomatic campaign to depict Tehran's nuclear development as a grave threat. The report was drafted after an extended internal debate over the reliability of communications intercepts of Iranian conversations this past summer that suggested the program had been suspended.

"Tehran's decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005," a declassified summary of the new National Intelligence Estimate stated. Two years ago, the intelligence community said in contrast it had "high confidence that Iran currently is determined to have nuclear weapons."

The new estimate, prepared by the nation's 16 intelligence agencies, applied the same "high confidence" label to a judgment that suspected Iranian military efforts to build a nuclear weapon were suspended in 2003 and said with "moderate confidence" that it had remained inactive since then.

Even if Iran were to restart its program now, the country probably could not produce enough highly enriched uranium for a single weapon before the middle of the next decade, the assessment stated. It also expressed doubt about whether Iran "currently intends to develop nuclear weapons."

A Blow to Bush's Tehran Policy
President Bush got the world's attention this fall when he warned that a nuclear-armed Iran might lead to World War III. But his stark warning came at least a month or two after he had first been told about fresh indications that Iran had actually halted its nuclear weapons program.

The new intelligence report released yesterday not only undercut the administration's alarming rhetoric over Iran's nuclear ambitions but could also throttle Bush's effort to ratchet up international sanctions and take off the table the possibility of preemptive military action before the end of his presidency.

Meanwhile, how outrageous is it that the best twelve months of alarmism from Bush & Cheney have come in the context of an environment where they've long had access to the intelligence community's assessment? Answer: Very outrageous.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

McCain vs. Romney on Torture

It's amazing how eloquent and sincere one can be when he's on the right side of an issue:

Romney just comes off as a weasel.

I don't understand why McCain isn't doing better in the polls. He comes off as honest and decent. Although he's not a religious fanatic, he is a mostly consistent conservative, unlike Rudy and Romney. Huckabee also strikes me as honest and decent, and he's an ordained minister! Does Romney have anything besides looks and money? Does Rudy have anything besides 9/11?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Assumptions We Make

One of my best friends went to yeshiva in Israel for two years after high school and came back looking and talking like a rabbi. It was interesting how people responded to him. He told me that a lot of the more "modern" modern Orthodox people he knew as well as some non-Orthodox Jews would out of nowhere act defensive around him or even launch what he took to be a preemptive strike. "Why do you need to wear a black hat? What's the matter with the way you were raised?"

In a way, his very appearance and demeanor was of course an implicit critique of their religiosity, just as my leaving Orthodoxy is an implicit critique of Orthodoxy. I think, though, that a lot of their reactions were due to assumptions they were making about his beliefs that may not have been quite fair to him, or actually true.

I know this because I'm now one of those non-Orthodox people who gets instinctively defensive around some Orthodox folks. I went to an Orthodox wedding recently and although I wore a kippah out of respect, my non-Orthodoxy was obvious in my answers to the most mundane questions. (e.g. Where are you living? Not near an Orthodox shul.) I winced inwardly every time I answered such a question, sure that they were judging me negatively.

But every single one of them was nothing but kind and friendly and completely non-judgmental, at least outwardly. This was as true for the ultra-Orthodox people from Monsey as it was for the most modern Orthodox.

I just realized today that maybe they weren't all judging me negatively internally. I have no evidence that they were. Maybe they were just regular people trying to catch up. They happen to be Orthodox, and the probably think that's the best way to be, but they don't necessarily judge me negatively for choosing a different path.

I once told that same friend, who was now a rabbi in fact as well as appearance, that I was moving in with my girlfriend. Preemptively, I told him, "I'm sure you don't approve." He kind of laughed and said, "You didn't ask me." At the time, I took that as an implicit criticism, but I think I have to reinterpret it now. Now I think he really wasn't judging. If I had asked, he probably would have told me that (obviously) he wouldn't live with a woman before marriage, but that's not the same thing as judging me negatively for doing that same thing.

So now I'm going to be more careful about my assumptions.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!!

Wishing all who celebrate a happy Thanksgiving!

To answer the question I get every year, I think you can be thankful without being thankful to someone.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Update: Richard Paey Pardoned

Richard Paey has finally been pardoned. (Previously: 1, 2.)
In October of this year, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist signed a pardon for Richard Paey, a paraplegic with multiple sclerosis who had served nearly four years of a 25-year prison sentence for drug trafficking. Paey, who requires high-dose opioid therapy to treat pain brought on by his MS, a car accident, and a botched back surgery, was convicted of trafficking despite concessions from prosecutors that there was no evidence the painkillers in his possession were for anything other than his own use. When police came to arrest the wheel-chair bound Paey, they came with a full-on SWAT team, battering down the door and rushing into the home of the wheelchair-bound Paey, his optometrist wife, and their two schoolage children.

Prosecutors offered Paey a plea bargain, but he refused, insisting that he’d done nothing wrong, and that he shouldn’t have to plead guilty to a felony for treating his own pain. Paey was tried, convicted, and given a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence. While in prison, the state of Florida paid for a morphine pump that administered painkillers to Paey at rates higher than what the state convicted him of for possessing in the first place.

Crist and Florida’s pardon board issued Paey’s pardon after heavy media coverage of his case, including by 60 Minutes, and the New York Times, as well as by reason’s own Jacob Sullum and Radley Balko.

Paey's story is straight out of Kafka. Convicted for possession of drugs that he needed to treat his pain, he was given higher doses in prison by the government than he was convicted for possessing.

Kudos to Governor Crist for finally making it right. Jeb Bush had refused to do so.

Read the whole story, which includes an interview.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

This Just In: Herman Melville is God

It's true. I didn't want to believe it either, but the Moby Dick codes have proven it conclusively.

Via an anonymous commentator at DovBear's.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Colin Powell: Iran is Far From a Nuke

Good news all around:

KUWAIT CITY (AP) — Iran is far from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and despite U.S. fears about its atomic intentions, an American military strike against the Islamic Republic is unlikely, former Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sunday.

Let's hope he's right, on both counts.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Links for the Day

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Two Belief Systems of Modern Orthodox Judaism, or Chizuk for XGH

(This post loosely based on XGH's Looking for Chizuk in all the Wrong Places.)

It seems to me that Modern Orthodoxy contains two separate belief systems: the one you pretend to believe (the Nominal Belief System) and the one you really believe (the Actual Belief Systems.) The NBS is absurd and contrary to all fact, but it has the virtue of connecting Modern Orthodoxy to traditional Orthodoxy. The ABSes do not have to be counterfactual, but supply enough meaning for people to stick around.

I think that a lot of people who have trouble with the NBS are simply uncomfortable with the tension between the NBS and the ABSes. Many, if not most, Modern Orthodox Jews do not actually believe the NBS, but have private ABSes. For whatever reason, this does not bother them. Either they don't really care that much about what's true or they've made a conscious or unconscious decision that it's worth keeping their ABS to themselves in order to remain in the community.

Here's my advice for the frum skeptics who want to remain frum: start to see the NBS as just a ritual that connects to the past, a shared lie the community has agreed to tell itself in order to maintain the lifestyle they call home. You are one of those who sees clearly that the NBS is false, but you have failed to see that many people don't really care if it's true or not; they just care that it lets them live the life they want to live.

Those of us who have realized that the NBS is not true have congratulated ourselves on our clear thinking and lack of bias. Perhaps we should also recognize that we have had an unclear perspective on the purpose of the NBS. For many or most Modern Orthodox people, it does not matter if it's true or not. If you want to leave, leave, but if you want to stay, stop being such a stickler for the truth.

H.L. Mencken wrote, "We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart." I think you need to expand that to your own religion. Believe it in the sense that you believe your wife is beautiful. You don't need to search for empirical studies demonstrating your wife's beauty, and you don't need to provide a sound philosophical treatise on why it's really inner beauty that matters. Just say that she's beautiful and recognize that she's beautiful to you and quit worrying so much about what's "really" true.

UFO Sightings and Religious Testimony

Dennis Kucinich's UFO sighting:

In Shirley MacLaine's new book, the actress and longtime friend of Dennis Kucinich makes an interesting claim: During a visit to her home in Washington state, Kucinich said he saw a UFO and heard messages from it.

"Dennis found his encounter extremely moving," MacLaine writes. "The smell of roses drew him out to my balcony where, when he looked up, he saw a gigantic triangular craft, silent, and observing him.

"It hovered, soundless, for 10 minutes or so, and sped away with a speed he couldn't comprehend. He said he felt a connection in his heart and heard directions in his mind."

Tim Russert asked Kucinich during the last Democratic debate if he had seen a UFO and Kucinich answered:
Uh, I did. And the rest of the account. It was an unidentified flying object, OK? It's like, it's unidentified. I saw something. Now, to answer your question. I'm moving my, and I'm also going to move my campaign office to Roswell, New Mexico, and another one in Exeter, New Hampshire, OK? And also, you have to keep in mind that Jimmy Carter saw a UFO, and also that more people in this country have seen UFOs than I think approve of George Bush's presidency.

Here we have a very successful politician, who is quirky to be sure but not obviously insane or prone to hallucinations, testifying that he saw a UFO. To be fair, he didn't clearly admit to Russert anything else that MacLaine said, but neither did he really deny it.

I think this provides an interesting window into various religious apologetic arguments.

C.S. Lewis, for example, popularized the argument that because of the things Jesus said, he must have been either a liar, a lunatic, or indeed the Lord. If MacLaine is to be believed, then by Lewis's logic, Kucinich must be either a liar, a lunatic, or someone who actually had the experience MacLaine described.

The Bible-Science apologists would focus on the fact that, technically, a UFO is nothing extraordinary -- it's just a flying object that we can't identify. This seems to be the route Kucinich attempted at the debate. Just like the Biblical Flood might have been a more local flood, Kucinich's UFO might have just been a weather balloon or a stealth bomber.

The mythologists would claim that Kucinich didn't mean his story literally -- it was an allegory for the Iraq war, or something.

So what are we skeptics to believe? If MacLaine is telling the truth about what Kucinich told her, I'm actually kind of stumped. I see no motive for him to have fabricated the story. I suppose a hallucination is possible, although I would assume hallucinations of that magnitude don't happen to otherwise sane people, unless some sort of drugs are involved, and we have no evidence that Kucinich was on any drugs, either. Another obvious explanation is that MacLaine either made up the story or seriously embellished it, or that Kucinich lied to her or embellished it to her. But I don't find that explanation especially compelling, either, because if she had lied or embellished it, Kucinich should have denied it more strongly, and if he had lied or embellished it to her, I don't see why he wouldn't deny it to Russert or at least explain what he had done in some way. Finally, there's no reason UFO's -- in the alien craft sense -- couldn't exist, although it seems unlikely that they would do things like Kucinich described without doing enough to confirm to more than fourteen percent of Americans that they exist.

In the end, I guess I'd bet on Kucinich having had some sort of hallucination. That's also my guess about various religious people's personal testimonies of seeing God or having other "supernatural" experiences, whether it be Moses's burning bush or some random Christian seeing Jesus in his bedroom at 4 am. Religious people who take such testimony seriously while dismissing someone like Kucinich out of hand are clearly biased and should reconsider their thought processes. So should the apologists.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

What Do Orthodox Jews Really Believe III, and Why Don't They Speak Up?

(Previously: one, two.)

XGH, DovBear, and Ezzie all link approvingly to this answer from James Kugel about what the implications are to Orthodox Judaism if the Torah is not divine. The comments at XGH's are well worth reading, as well.

The question is in response to Kugel's recent book How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. Kugel is a Biblical Scholar and a professor at Harvard, who believes in the Documentary Hypothesis but nevertheless considers himself an Orthodox Jew.

Anyway, here's the gist of the question:
I suppose I am writing to you to get your thoughts on how a religious person can maintain his/her faith and fealty in and to a rabbinic system that is so directly based on the belief of a Divine text and the “Four Assumptions”? I fully realize that I am asking this question to a Bible professor who happens to be observant rather than to a Rabbi - I am more interested in the former's response than the latter's.

And the answer in full:
Before getting to the specifics of your e-mail, I should say something exculpatory (I hope) about this book in general. It really is not addressed specifically to Orthodox Jews, or even to Jews as a whole. I think there’s been some confusion about this. I’m a Bible professor, and the purpose of this book is to teach something about the nature of modern biblical scholarship – something that the general public, and even quite a few modern scholars themselves, are largely unaware of (i.e., the great gap separating ancient and modern scholarship, and the crucial role of ancient interpreters in shaping the Bible’s message). It’s true that, in the last chapter, I also tried to offer some thoughts about how different groups, including what I called "traditional Judaism," might try to reckon with the insights of modern scholars, but if that were all I was out to do, the book could have been considerably shorter.

A second point is also worth mentioning – and this is a bit closer to the subject of your e-mail. Orthodox Jews (myself included) are, by definition, people who like to be told what to do. We accept eagerly the whole “prepared table” of Judaism – not just the idea of avodat H’, but all the detailed plan that goes with it. In fact, the general idea alone would not get us very far (this was the oft-repeated theme of my book “On Being a Jew”). And so, it is part of the whole posture of seeking to do God’s bidding that we absorb ourselves in the details of the traditional way of life, "davening three times a day" as you say, and kashrut and learning and Shabbat. We don’t take easily to going beyond this, looking up from those daily tasks to contemplate our Employer, that is to say, to think about the really basic issues of theology. In fact, to talk about such things even seems to us un-Jewish; it is neither a necessary nor a particularly comfortable activity for someone who has undertaken to live as an Orthodox Jew. If it ever does come to such basic questions, I think our preferred path is, as in the details of halakhah, to look to our classic texts to tell us what to think. I’m sure I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.

The problem posed by modern biblical scholarship is that it calls into question some of the most basic teachings of Judaism, and, since it really is modern, its specific arguments are not addressed by our classical sources. So what should a Jew think about modern scholarship? As I said, I wrote this book for a broad audience from different religions, but as far as Jews are concerned, my purpose was certainly not to get them to incorporate into Judaism modern scholarship’s version of what the Torah is or where it came from. In fact, I think I recommended pretty clearly at the beginning of the book that people of traditional beliefs think twice about reading it, and at the end I said outright that modern biblical scholarship is altogether incompatible with traditional Jewish belief and
practice. In other words, I think that if you want to be an Orthodox Jew, the Documentary Hypothesis and the other insights of modern scholars can have no place in the way you study Torah. (This, by the way, puts me at odds not only with the stance of Conservative Judaism, but also with a fair number of biblical scholars who describe themselves as Orthodox.) I really don’t even buy the idea that you can go halfway down the modern path, adopting the linguistic or philological insights of modern scholars but not the rest. Ultimately, all roads lead to Wellhausen.

But the question I tried to address in that last chapter was: bedi’avad, what is someone who has heard or learned something of modern scholarship (and this includes an increasingly large number of Orthodox Jews) to think?

I know that the answer of some people, perhaps a great many people, is what your e-mail calls “burying their heads in the sand,” though perhaps we should rather call it: “trying to stick with Judaism’s traditional teachings by ignoring or dismissing what modern scholars say.” I really have nothing to say against such a stance. I know perfectly well how much is at stake for most people in adopting any other position. For the same reason, I feel pretty sure that most Orthodox Jews will continue to declare modern scholarship off-limits.

But I also know that this is not an adequate response for some people – not for you, according to your e-mail, and truthfully, not for me either. It just feels wrong to say about anything that really matters to you, “Well, I know that scholars have turned up a lot of disturbing facts, but I don’t want to know about them.” My impulse, anyway, is to face the truth as best it can be known and then try to make sense of what it is telling us.

In your e-mail you say that if modern scholars have proved that the Torah is not a "divine document," then our whole system of halakhah collapses. I don't think I'd ever accept that premise in the first place: modern scholars may have proven a lot of things, but I don't think they've ever tried to determine what is or is not divinely inspired, simply because there is no litmus test by which you can decide such a thing. Words are words, whether written by prophets or interpolators or editors, whether written in this particular set of circumstances or another; the words never carry little flags identifying some of them as divinely inspired and others and ordinarily human.

I believe what I just said is absolutely true, but I wouldn't want to use it as a cop-out to avoid addressing what seems to me to be the real issue. Modern scholars have said a lot of things that are indeed upsetting to traditional belief: they've cast doubt on the Torah's reliability as a historical account of things that actually happened, they've highlighted contradictions within the text, and so on and so forth. Doesn't this indeed undercut the Torah's standing as the basis of our whole way of life?

Forgive me if I restate some of the overall argument I made at the end of the book. (I know you didn't find it particularly convincing the first time around, but I'm hoping this time I may say it better.)

When you actually consider Judaism as it is, the role of the Torah in it is really not what you say it is. Ultimately, Jews are not Torah-fundamentalists. On the contrary, our whole tradition is based on adding liberally to what the Torah says (despite Deut. 4:2), sometimes reading its words in a way out of keeping with their apparent meaning, and sometimes even distorting or disregarding its words entirely. (My book “The Bible As It Was” contains seven hundred pages of examples of how this all began.) What’s more, as everyone knows, much of what makes up the daily fabric of Jewish life has only a tenuous connection, or no connection at all, with what is actually written in the Torah. I mentioned such things as saying the Amidah three times a day, the berakhot that we recite before eating and on other occasions, netilat yadayim, many aspects of kashrut [e.g. basar vehalav], many of the particulars in the way we keep Shabbat and holidays, studying the Babylonian Talmud, and so on and so forth. Isn’t this an awful lot of what it means to lead a halakhic life? On the other hand, one might also mention such practices as mekhirat hametz, which on the face of it seem in fact to contradict what is written in the Torah, in this case, the prohibitions of bal yera’eh ubal yimmatze. And all these are really only the tip of the iceberg; you yourself could go into much greater detail on this theme.

So someone looking at this situation from afar would probably be reluctant to accept your assertion that the whole system of halakhah depends on the words of the Torah and their divine inspiration. (Of course I am aware that our Rabbis sought to find within the Torah itself the source of their own authority to add to or depart from the Torah’s own words, but I think our outside observer would rightly point out a certain circularity here: It is only the rabbis’ own, authoritative interpretation of a certain verse in the Torah that grants them the right of authoritative interpretation. In any case, this is a formalist argument, one that doesn't really speak to the larger issue.)

No, this observer would say, it is simply not true that the whole system of halakhah depends on the words of the Torah. Those words were the starting-point, but what has truly proven determinative in them (indeed, what was recognized as such from the start) was the general direction that those words point in and embody, and whose trajectory was then carried forward through the Mishnah and Gemara and all later writings. That "general direction" is the basic idea that Israel's connection to God is to be articulated through avodat H'. This is the whole substance of the Sinai revelation, and whether it took place at Sinai or somewhere else, biblical scholarship itself has highlighted the utter disconnectedness of this idea from all that preceded it. Before that moment, there was (for centuries) the God of Old, who appeared and disappeared; and there was the offering of sacrifices in the temple. Then, suddenly, the phrase la'avod 'et H' acquired a new meaning: it meant doing all these mitzvot. That changed forever the whole character of divine-human interaction, and it's that change that all later Judaism embodies.

As I said before, Jews generally don't like to think about such things, and talking about a "general direction" or overall character of the Sinai revelation is particularly disturbing for people who are otherwise so devoted to studying specific words and actual texts. But I think if you want to be absolutely accurate, you have to admit that, time and again, it's not a matter of the specific words, at least not if you try to see the big picture. What really underlies everything -- and what was the ongoing substance of the Sinai revelation -- was the revelation of a new way of being connected to God.

In the light of all this, I hinted at the very end of the book at what is called in German a “thought experiment.” What would happen if someone could demonstrate definitively that God had truly given only one commandment to Moshe at Mount Sinai, the one in Deuteronomy that says: “You shall serve the Lord your God with your whole heart and soul.” Then He said to Moshe: “Okay, you and the zeqenim and their later successors can work out the details.” Well, this is a somewhat jarring question, but please go along with it for a minute. In the end, I do not believe that this would, or could, invalidate our system of halakhah. Of course I do believe in nevu’ah, in divine revelation, and I don’t think that Israel got only that one commandment from God. Theoretically, however, I think it would be enough if that were all, since that would provide the firm basis for everything that followed -- Moshe's, or Rabbi Akiva's, elaboration of how this primal divine commandment is to be carried out. Because ultimately, any Jew must admit that at some point the divinely-given text leads to the human interpreter and the poseq, indeed, to this specific taqqanah and that specific gezerah shavah. And frankly, we don't really seem to all that aware of, or even care much about, where the dividing-line falls. This is our “prepared table,” the work of many hands. If someone wants a different table, let him go ahead – but this is the Jewish table, the way Jews serve God.

As one of our sages said: to what may the matter be compared? To a man who wished to see the King. So he went to the royal palace and stood outside and waited for the King to appear. After some hours, the King did come outside, and the man was thrilled. But soon the King went back inside the palace. The man returned the next day, and the next, and sometimes he did catch a glimpse of the King, but always only for a few seconds, and then his view would be blocked by someone, or the King would step behind a pillar or get into his carriage and ride off. What had at first been thrilling now became only frustrating.

Eventually, the king’s close advisor became aware of the presence of the man standing day after day outside the palace, and he approached him and said: “I know what you want, but you are going about it the wrong way. Go up to the palace door and ask to work inside – it doesn’t matter what: janitor, guard, woodcutter or water-drawer! Then you will enter the palace by right and see the King as a matter of course; indeed, He will recognize you and perhaps even call you by name.” And so the man did, and it was just as the King’s advisor had said: he saw the King up close every day, and the King called to him by name.

This is the whole idea of Judaism. If you want to come close to God, the only way is to become His employee. Understanding that avodat H' is the true foundation of our halakhah may not de-fang modern biblical scholarship; a lot of what it says will always be disturbing to Jews. But I think that modern scholarship does not, because it cannot, undermine the essence of Judaism or what Jews actually do in their lives; it cannot, as you suggest, cause the system to collapse.

That was not my whole purpose in writing this book, but it was one thing I wished to say, because I thought it might be of help to people like yourself. Of course I knew – I knew this even before I began writing – that some people would be upset by the book, and I knew that their natural reaction would be to attack me. I must tell you I really don’t mind. I know that for such people, even contemplating modern scholarship is off limits for an Orthodox Jew, so anyone who does so must be condemned. But after all is said and done and Kugel is long gone, the problems raised for Orthodox Jews by modern biblical scholarship will remain. My hope is that the response I’ve outlined here, which is really what I said in somewhat different terms in my book, will also be around for a while, and that it may help people like yourself to look squarely at those problems and at what seems to me to be their only truthful resolution.

In other words, it doesn't matter if the Torah came directly from God as told to Moses at Sinai, because the Torah itself isn't that central to Orthodox Judaism!

Now I agree with him that Orthodox halakha (law) is so far removed from the words of the Torah that the Torah itself is almost irrelevant. E.g., the Torah says not to cook a calf in its mother's milk and today's Orthodox Jews wait 1-6 hours after eating meat to eat milk, have separate dishes and silverware for milk and meat, and even sometimes separate dishwashers and ovens. The Torah says "an eye for an eye" and the Rabbis made it "compensation for an eye." The Torah says to bring sacrifices and the Rabbis turned it into saying prayers.

But as Kugel admits, "modern biblical scholarship is altogether incompatible with traditional Jewish belief and practice," so it strikes me as a strange leap to go from, "Oh, we've built so much on top of the Torah that it doesn't even matter if it turns out not to be from Sinai," as if the Torah were just a mold for the halakha that could be discarded once the halakha itself was built.

But yet he persists as an Orthodox Jew.

Many other Orthodox Jews no doubt would take issue with his self-identification with them, but I wonder how many others secretly agree, or have similar thought processes.

So far, we've seen in this What Do Orthodox Jews Really Believe series, that Jews who call themselves Orthodox might believe that the world is billions of years old, that Adam and Eve were mythological, that the Flood was either mythological or greatly exaggerated, that the Exodus was either mythological or greatly exaggerated, and now that the Torah itself very well might have been written by several different people and wasn't given at Sinai at all.

This doesn't give us any indication of how many Orthodox Jews believe these things, but it does give us an idea of the range of beliefs one can hold while still considering himself or herself Orthodox. There are X number of Orthodox Jews who believe that the earth is less than 6,000 years old and that Bilaam really had a talking donkey and then there are Y number of Orthodox Jews who believe that the Torah was written by men, albeit divinely inspired, and contains mythology, historical errors, and presumably other non-divine things, like maybe the whole idea about gay sex being an abomination. And, of course, there are Z number of Orthodox Jews who believe some combination of the above beliefs or any number of other ones and, perhaps the largest group of all, W number of people who are either incurious and simply take everything for granted or specifically avoid thinking about certain topics and dismiss out of hand any contrary arguments.

If Y is a large number, though, I think what we have is an enormous sham. Kugel is open about his beliefs, and so is XGH, at least pseudonymously, but I have to guess that they are just the tip of the iceberg. There are tens of thousands of modern, intelligent, educated, and curious Orthodox Jews in America who must be asking themselves these questions and arriving at some pretty similar answers. Kugel put it perfectly: once you start asking, "all roads lead to Wellhausen."

Is there a vast well of Orthodox Jews who believe these things in private but are afraid to speak up?

Do they have a responsibility to speak up?

A whole generation of intelligent, curious teenagers are feeling ashamed and scared for having doubts and questions about Orthodoxy's legitimacy. A whole generation of adults is stressing out every day about following to the letter an increasingly stringent and incomprehensible set of laws. Families are divided when some of us go "off the derech" or, God-forbid, marry a non-Jew. A generation of Chareidi (ultra-Orthodox) youth, especially the girls, are being shortchanged in their secular educations and career prospects. A whole generation of Orthodox gay children are being raised with the belief that God considers gay sex an abomination and worthy of death, even if we no longer execute people for it.

How many Orthodox people lied to me, overtly or by omission, when I was a teenager wondering how people could really believe this stuff? How many betrayed the gay kids I went to school with by keeping silent when they were taught at every turn that their desires and feelings were wrong? Why are the fundamentalists the only ones talking honestly about their beliefs?

I think the other denominations of Judaism have a lot to do with people's reticence to speak up. If the modern Orthodox suddenly started talking openly about these beliefs, they would instantly create a new denomination, de facto if not de jure. They don't like what they see in Conservative, in Reform, in Reconstructionist, or in Humanistic. They desperately want the ultra-Orthodox to consider them Orthodox. They want to maintain Orthodoxy's retention rates. They want to keep Orthodoxy's strong communities. They think that they'll lose what they love about Orthodoxy if they admit what they really believe, and they're probably right.

These are just my guesses. I have no way of knowing how many people believe these things, because people aren't talking. Maybe the blogs will change all that. Maybe if people have a safe avenue to explore forbidden thoughts, something new and better will come out of it. Or maybe it will just be the end of Modern Orthodoxy. Or maybe nothing will change, because that's just how the world works.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Bush 41 on Torture and the American Ideal

He doesn't come out and say it, but I suspect, as does Andrew Sullivan, that his tears are for what his son has done to America's honor:

Chris Wallace: “The President remembered the courage and humanity of American soldiers and he grew emotional.”

Bush: “My favorite picture is a picture of American soldiers surrounding a guy who's been in a foxhole, Iraqi soldier, and the American guy says, we’re not going to harm you, we’re American soldiers.” (fights back tears)


Bush: “You see, that side of the war never got — the fact that we treated those people with respect in spite of the fact they were the enemy, it’s really good.

Watch the video. (Ignore the comments.)

Friday, November 02, 2007

Andrew Sullivan on Obama in The Atlantic Monthly

Of the viable national candidates, only Obama and possibly McCain have the potential to bridge this widening partisan gulf. Polling reveals Obama to be the favored Democrat among Republicans. McCain’s bipartisan appeal has receded in recent years, especially with his enthusiastic embrace of the latest phase of the Iraq War. And his personal history can only reinforce the Vietnam divide. But Obama’s reach outside his own ranks remains striking. Why? It’s a good question: How has a black, urban liberal gained far stronger support among Republicans than the made-over moderate Clinton or the southern charmer Edwards? Perhaps because the Republicans and independents who are open to an Obama candidacy see his primary advantage in prosecuting the war on Islamist terrorism. It isn’t about his policies as such; it is about his person. They are prepared to set their own ideological preferences to one side in favor of what Obama offers America in a critical moment in our dealings with the rest of the world. The war today matters enormously. The war of the last generation? Not so much. If you are an American who yearns to finally get beyond the symbolic battles of the Boomer generation and face today’s actual problems, Obama may be your man.

What does he offer? First and foremost: his face. Think of it as the most effective potential re-branding of the United States since Reagan. Such a re-branding is not trivial—it’s central to an effective war strategy. The war on Islamist terror, after all, is two-pronged: a function of both hard power and soft power. We have seen the potential of hard power in removing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. We have also seen its inherent weaknesses in Iraq, and its profound limitations in winning a long war against radical Islam. The next president has to create a sophisticated and supple blend of soft and hard power to isolate the enemy, to fight where necessary, but also to create an ideological template that works to the West’s advantage over the long haul. There is simply no other candidate with the potential of Obama to do this. Which is where his face comes in.

Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.

The other obvious advantage that Obama has in facing the world and our enemies is his record on the Iraq War. He is the only major candidate to have clearly opposed it from the start. Whoever is in office in January 2009 will be tasked with redeploying forces in and out of Iraq, negotiating with neighboring states, engaging America’s estranged allies, tamping down regional violence. Obama’s interlocutors in Iraq and the Middle East would know that he never had suspicious motives toward Iraq, has no interest in occupying it indefinitely, and foresaw more clearly than most Americans the baleful consequences of long-term occupation.

This latter point is the most salient. The act of picking the next president will be in some ways a statement of America’s view of Iraq. Clinton is running as a centrist Democrat—voting for war, accepting the need for an occupation at least through her first term, while attempting to do triage as practically as possible. Obama is running as the clearer antiwar candidate. At the same time, Obama’s candidacy cannot fairly be cast as a McGovernite revival in tone or substance. He is not opposed to war as such. He is not opposed to the use of unilateral force, either—as demonstrated by his willingness to target al-Qaeda in Pakistan over the objections of the Pakistani government. He does not oppose the idea of democratization in the Muslim world as a general principle or the concept of nation building as such. He is not an isolationist, as his support for the campaign in Afghanistan proves. It is worth recalling the key passages of the speech Obama gave in Chicago on October 2, 2002, five months before the war:

I don’t oppose all wars. And I know that in this crowd today, there is no shortage of patriots, or of patriotism. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war … I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.

The man who opposed the war for the right reasons is for that reason the potential president with the most flexibility in dealing with it. Clinton is hemmed in by her past and her generation. If she pulls out too quickly, she will fall prey to the usual browbeating from the right—the same theme that has played relentlessly since 1968. If she stays in too long, the antiwar base of her own party, already suspicious of her, will pounce. The Boomer legacy imprisons her—and so it may continue to imprison us. The debate about the war in the next four years needs to be about the practical and difficult choices ahead of us—not about the symbolism or whether it’s a second Vietnam.

It's the cover story. Read the whole thing.

Personally, I'm not so sure his face matters as much as Sullivan argues. His reasoned opposition to the war and ability to bridge the cultural divide? That matters.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

This Year's Boston Celtics

I have never been a Boston Celtics fan, but this past off-season, in a gutsy move to make fans everywhere but Boston green with envy, they went and got themselves two superstars (and two of my favorite players) Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.

Kevin Garnett is arguably the best player in the world and has been for about five years. Most people don't know this (in fact, I bet most of my readers who don't follow the NBA have never even heard of him) because for twelve years -- his entire professional career as well as his whole adult life (he was 19 when drafted) -- KG has been stranded in Minnesota, which has never been able to give him good teammates. He seems like a good guy and he brings an intensity and a desire to win that epitomize professional sports at their best. In a moving interview with John Thompson a couple of years ago, he broke down crying in frustration with the 'Wolves.

Ray Allen, meanwhile, is probably the best pure shooter in the game and I've always had a soft spot for guys who could make the J look so easy. (I was a huge fan of Reggie Miller.) Besides, how many NBA players not only starred in a movie, but starred in a pretty good movie?

Garnett and Allen join Paul Pierce (who is almost as good as Kobe Bryant, statistically speaking) and a decent supporting cast to form the most exciting Celtics team since the Bird years. It's sure going to be fun to watch.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Which Biblical Character are You?

Chana's got a fun post up, which I'm going to steal:
  • Which biblical character do you feel you are most like?
  • Which biblical character would you marry?
  • Which biblical character would you want on your team (or on your side, during a war?)
  • Which biblical character would you want to be close friends with?
  • Which biblical character do you think would make an excellent Disney villain?

Here are my answers, simulposted from her place:

Which biblical character do you feel you are most like?

Abraham. Although I wasn't quite so rude as to literally smash my father's idols, I did come to disbelieve in his religion and left the (metaphorical) land of my father.

Which biblical character would you marry?

Eve. I couldn't have resisted the Tree of Knowledge, either. Also, I hear she was a looker. ;-)

Which biblical character would you want on your team (or on your side, during a war?)

Joshua, if I'm not worried about war crimes or genocide. That guy was brutal.

Which biblical character would you want to be close friends with?

It'd sure be fun to have deep conversations with David. Also, I bet he threw some great parties.

Which biblical character do you think would make an excellent Disney villain?


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

More on Noah and Orthodox Apologetics

Last week, I asked What Do Orthodox People Really Believe? Several commenters argued that many Orthodox people believe that Noah's flood was merely a regional flood and not a global one and that certain Orthodox authorities have stated that this belief is acceptable within Orthodox Judaism.

This is what drives me nuts. The story is obviously mythological, so obvious that it's hard to believe anyone who has read it wouldn't immediately see that. It's also pretty obvious that the story comes from sources alien to Judaism. Let's look at some other parts of the story, all directly from the Torah:

  1. Noah was 600 years old.
  2. Beings called "the sons of gods" (בְנֵי־הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙) married "the daughters of men."
  3. God decides that from now on people would live only to a hundred and twenty.
  4. By the way, there were giants in those days.
  5. Also, there were giants later, when the "daughters of men" bore children to "the sons of gods."
  6. God became sorry and grieved that he had created men.
  7. So he decided to kill all of them except Noah -- and to kill all the land animals and birds, too.
  8. He tells Noah to build an ark, 300 x 50 x 30 cubits, with three levels.
  9. He declares that everything on Earth and under heaven shall die.
  10. He tells Noah to bring two of every kind (מִינָ֔הּ) of land animal and bird and enough food to feed them.
  11. He tells Noah to bring seven of every kind of pure animal and of all birds and two of the rest.
  12. The fountains of the deep and the "windows of heaven" (אֲרֻבֹּ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם) opened.
  13. All the high hills under the entire heaven were covered. Then all the mountains.
  14. The water began to recede after 150 days.
  15. Noah opened the ark after 40 days.
  16. God promises never to do that again.
  17. Noah just happened to father the ancestor of all Canaanites, who he later cursed along with all of his descendents for "uncovering his nakedness."
  18. Noah died at 900.
  19. Noah's sons have sons who all formed their own peoples as well!
  20. Then we enter the story of the Tower of Babel.
What a story! In a single narrative, we have impossible claims about humans' lifespans, a God who isn't happy with his work and kills virtually every living thing on earth, actual giants, indications of some sort of polytheistic/demigod mythology, hints at multiple authorship, hints of a flat-earth cosmology, just-so stories about how all the nations came to be, all leading up to a just-so story about how different languages came to be!

For those Orthodox people who take the whole thing as a sort of parable or myth, I have no real problem, other than questions about how they know when not to take something in the Torah as parable or myth. (And why the precise measurements of the ark?) I'm mystified, though, about those people who take the story as more-or-less history, even if it's "really" talking only about a regional flood.

Have they never read the story? Did they just settle on the first pat answer to a troubling question? What do they make of all the great sages of old who obviously took the story as history? Do they just try not to think about this stuff too much? Again, I'm wondering about the educated, intelligent, "modern" Orthodox people. What do they really believe?

(Cartoon via Stardust Musings.)

Friday, October 19, 2007

Update: Troops donate more to Obama than to any other candidate, Democratic or Republican

In the previous post, I pointed out that people "affiliated with the military" donated most to the two leading anti-war candidates, Paul and Obama. As it turns out, when you narrow the people "affiliated with the military" to actual "uniformed service members," Obama is the clear winner, with $27,000! A distant second is Paul, with $19,250, followed closely by McCain, with $18,600.

These must be Rush Limbaugh's "phony soldiers." Why do the troops hate our troops so much??

What do our troops know that Bush's 30% does not?

The few people who continue to support the Iraq war and claim that we're finally turning things around ("this time we mean it!") point frequently to anecdotes from soldiers over there who are privy to more information than we are. Blog-neighbor Mark has pointed to troop reenlistment rates as a proxy for troop morale as a proxy for evidence that things are going well, presumably because less indirect evidence is difficult to find.

I wonder what they'll make of this?

From January through September, donors affiliated with the military gave more contributions to Republican antiwar candidate Ron Paul than to anyone else. Coming in second place? Democratic antiwar candidate Barack Obama. Coming in third is John McCain, defender of the status quo.

When I said "I wonder..." above, I was just kidding, of course. This isn't going to change anybody's mind. All the Bush 30% have left is ad hoc reasoning. I'm sure that they'll find evidence that the war is going well in the number of bottles of water shipped to Iraq every week or something.*

* I recognize that violence has declined somewhat, at least by certain metrics. It's whether the surge is working politically that I'm referring to, i.e. whether we are getting any closer to leaving behind a successful state.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

If America Hadn't Lost its Freaking Mind

Then this quote would be true:
By now, it's clear that "We don't torture" is going to be George Bush's equivalent to "I am not a crook" or "I did not have sexual relations with that woman"--an embarrassingly transparent, obviously untrue statement that the speaker never would have even made in the first place if he hadn't been obligated to deny something that everybody had already figured out was the case. - Phil Nugent

That this transparent lie has barely made the press is disgraceful. If only we could get an intern to give the man a blow-job.

The Problem with Modern Orthodoxy

XGH quotes Rabbi Horowitz:
I am getting a new wave of parents begging me to speak to their children. The profile is chillingly similar: 13-14 years old boys and girls. High achieving in school. No emotional problems; great, respectful kids from great homes. Well adjusted. They just don’t want to be frum. Period. They are eating on Yom Kippur, not keeping Shabbos, not keeping kosher; et al.

No anger, no drugs, no promiscuous activity. They are just not buying what we are selling. Some have decided to ‘go public’, while others are still ‘in the closet’. In some of the cases, their educators have no idea of what is really going on.


My friends, I have no other way to say this other than “we are running out of time.” The kids are finding each other via cell phones, chat groups, Facebook and My Space. They are “making their own minyan.” Many minyanim in fact.

This phenomenon is also playing itself out in a similar manner among frum adults. Just look at the response on my website to Rabbi Becher’s excellent column, Adults at Risk.

May Hashem give us the wisdom and courage to make the changes that are necessary to reverse these frightening trends.

Finally, an Orthodox rabbi admits the truth:
High achieving in school. No emotional problems; great, respectful kids from great homes. Well adjusted. They just don’t want to be frum. Period... No anger, no drugs, no promiscuous activity. They are just not buying what we are selling.

By any reasonable criteria, these kids are stunning successes. By the standards of Modern Orthodox Judaism? They represent trends that are "chilling" and "frightening." If a teen (or adult!) decides that being frum is not for them, it's a tragedy.

I've never seen my opposition to Orthodox Judaism summed up better.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

What Do Orthodox People Really Believe?

XGH has claimed that several rabbis have admitted to him in private beliefs that they would never own up to in public. I wonder, if that's true, how many other rabbis are the same way? And how many of the rank-and-file Orthodox are as well?

There are several claims which are (in my opinion) transparently false but Orthodox Judaism depends on. For example:
  1. 600,000 Jews literally walked out of Egypt at one time, plus "a mixed multitude" who went with them, along with flocks and herds and "very much" cattle.
  2. There was a global flood that killed all living things except those which lived peacefully together on a man-made ark for forty days and forty nights.
  3. The five books of Moses were written primarily by Moses, plus or minus a few letters here and there and maybe the last eight sentences.
I know that a lot of Orthodox Jews simply assume that these claims are true. I'm sure that some others are convinced by apologetics that they are true. What of the rest, though? Are we to believe that your average, relatively intellectual Modern Orthodox Jew believes these things? Or do they disbelieve, but keep quiet?

I don't really want to call anyone out, but do people like Chana and Ezzie believe that those things are true? Or do they just not think about them? Or do they accept the apologetics without thinking about those? Or are they literally in psychological denial? What about the rabbis? Is it all a big lie to them, albeit with good intentions, like telling children that the ghost of Elijah drinks from the cup at the seder or that the tooth fairy gives you money for teeth?

I'd really love to know. It's a shame there's no way to find out, short of kidnapping a bunch of rabbis and other Orthodox Jews and submitting them to a carefully-constructed polygraph test.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Basketball Links and a Rant about the NBA Age Limit

Two links from the TrueHoop blog:
  • Video of Wilt Chamberlain at 17 years old!
  • Damon Agnos argues that college players should make the jump as soon as they become a "consensus first-round pick" by pointing out that seriously injured NBA players are collecting enormous paychecks while seriously injured college players may never make it.

Let me take this moment to editorialize about the NBA's age limit. I think it stinks and should be repealed. It's unfairly discriminatory against kids who are ready for the league and is probably bad for the NBA as well. Why should the next Kobe Bryant or LeBron James have to play in college for a year, with no salary or endorsements and no guarantee of either if they get injured? Basically, the age limit allows the NBA to outsource their coaching of 17-year-olds to college coaches at no cost. The NBA benefits from this in those (frequent) circumstances when kids are drafted on potential but need a year to develop. The colleges obviously benefit. NCAA basketball fans benefit. Television networks benefit. Everybody benefits but the kid.

Don't talk to me about how important college is, either. If you feel that way, convince the NCAA to let NBA teams draft young players and give them guaranteed contracts while still allowing them to play in college. Convince them to allow college players to receive endorsement money. It's unconscionable to let these often impoverished kids risk their entire careers for no money and no guarantees.

Besides, some of those kids have no real business even going to college. Jason Kidd, for example, is an amazing basketball player, but had to take the SATs four times to meet the NCAA minimum combined score of (if I recall correctly) 700. And he went to Berkeley. It's not like these guys are necessarily learning anything (although some do.) The whole system is a scam.

The D-League is a step in the right direction, I suppose. But an average salary of $35,000 is a far cry from the two-year, $1 million plus guaranteed contract some of those same players would get if they were allowed to enter the NBA draft.

Hillary a Neocon?

Libertarian Radley Balko makes the case that Hillary Clinton is "essentially a neocon who digs abortion:"
For seven years, the left has been up in arms about President Bush's aggressive foreign policy, his secrecy, his partisanship, and his expansive claims on executive power. It's odd, then, that they're prepared to nominate Hillary Clinton to carry the party into the 2008 elections.
Cato Institute President Ed Crane recently wrote a piece for the Financial Times pointing out that when you strip away the partisan coating, Mrs. Clinton's grandiose, big-government vision is really no different than that envisioned by the neoconservatives so loathed by the left. Clinton, remember, not only voted for the Iraq war, she still hasn't conceded she was wrong to do so, and has made no promise to end it any time soon.
Hillary Clinton voted for both the Patriot Act and its reauthorization. She voted for building a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border. She voted to loosen restrictions limiting the federal government's ability to wiretap cell phones. In the past, she has supported a robust role for the federal government in enforcing "decency" standards in television and music. She teamed up with former Sen. Rick Santorum on a bill calling for the federal government to restrict the sale of violent video games.

Leftists concerned about the entertainment industry's increasingly imperial stand on copyright might take a cue from copyright guru Lawrence Lessig, who wrote on his blog for Wired magazine: "Of all the Dems, I would have bet she was closest to the copyright extremists. So far, she's done nothing to suggest to the contrary."

What about secrecy and executive power? It's difficult to see Hillary Clinton voluntarily handing back all of those extra-constitutional executive powers claimed by President Bush. Her husband's administration, for example, copiously invoked dubious "executive privilege" claims to keep from complying with congressional subpoenas and open records requests — claims the left now (correctly, in my view) regularly criticizes the Bush administration for invoking.

Hillary Clinton herself went to court to keep meetings of her Health Care Task Force secret from the public, something conservatives were quick to point out when leftists criticize Vice President Cheney's similar efforts to keep meetings of his Energy Task Force secret.

"I'm a strong believer in executive authority," Clinton said in a 2003 speech, recently quoted in The New Republic. "I wish that, when my husband was president, people in Congress had been more willing to recognize presidential authority."
Activists on the left need to recognize that Hillary Clinton winning the Democratic primary is the GOP's last best hope to elect a Republican to continue pursuing President Bush's pursuit of these unfortunate policies. And judging by her political career and recent voting record, they should also realize that even if they succeed in electing Hillary Clinton to the White House, it's likely that the only real resulting change in Washington will be that come 2009, we'll merely have a Democrat pursuing the same misguided policies.

Balko's claim that Senator Clinton is a neocon is certainly closer to the truth than the hysterical right's belief that she's a liberal commie. Everybody on the left seems to recognize that she's the right-most candidate running on the Democratic ticket, but exactly how far to the right is she? Is Balko right that she would simply continue Bush's policies? It's a scary thought.

I don't put too much stock in that much-ballyhooed moment when the top three Dems said they couldn't guarantee that no American troops would remain in Iraq by the end of their first term. It was a bad question, making no distinction between maintaining a few thousand troops in advisory roles and continuing a full-scale occupation. Nobody can predict the future and asking candidates to make those sorts of pledges is asinine*.

There continues to be no doubt in my mind that any of the first-tier Democrats would be better than any of the Republicans. Hillary might be a neocon in spirit, but I believe that she would follow her husband's model of "triangulation" and not support those policies that a majority of Americans disapprove of. That would mean that she doesn't accomplish any of the left's unpopular objectives like gay marriage or scaling back the war on drugs, but it would also mean that she doesn't accomplish any of the neocons' unpopular objectives like invading Iran or, as Mitt Romney idiotically proposed, "doubling Guantanamo." And on the plus side, she probably would improve the United States's image abroad, get universal (not single-payer!) health care through, and have fiscally AND socially responsible economic policies similar to her husband's. She would also install left-leaning Supreme Court justices, which is as important as ever, considering the "conservative" (i.e. authoritarian) direction the Court has taken lately.

I continue to support Obama and the clean break with the neocons that he (or Edwards) would represent, but I wouldn't see a Hillary presidency as a tragedy and I would certainly vote for her over any Republican now running. My biggest fear about her remains the effect the right's irrational hatred for her would have on the country. Wouldn't it be ironic if the Hillary haters got Obama or Edwards elected instead and ended up with a "real" Democratic president? One can only hope.

* Incidentally, Giuliani had the best answer I've ever heard to that kind of request at the GOP debate in New Hampshire when asked to make the same mistake George H.W. Bush made when he pledged "no new taxes" -- "I only think a man or woman running for president ought to take one pledge and that is a pledge to uphold the United States Constitution." Ironic, coming from Giuliani, who I suspect would revoke the entire Bill of Rights if he could, but a great response.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Evolution of my Blog

New atheist blogger PhillyChief of You Made Me Say It has tagged me with the Evolutionary Meme. The idea is to pick five posts which reflect the evolution of one's blog and then to pass the meme on to five others.

Going back through the archives, I find that while my blog has evolved over the years (!) that I've run it, most of the themes were present nearly from the beginning. In other words, I, the Creator, created, in the beginning, several "kinds" from which all current posts descend. Macroevolution of this blog's posts is a lie perpetrated by the atheist liberal elite. The only evolution that exists at Jewish Atheist is microevolution, or evolution within "kinds."

Accordingly, all five posts that I will discuss are from 2005, my first year blogging. Each is the first post of it's "kind."

1) My first real post was on May 20, 2005. It was titled Common Questions I - The Cosmological Argument. This introduced the first major theme of my blog: arguments for atheism and/or against theism. This theme has become less prevalent as my break with Orthodox Judaism recedes into my past.

2) Only five days later, on May 25, 2005, I introduced the second major theme of this blog: the downsides of Orthodox Judaism as a culture and a lifestyle. In a post called How Orthodoxy Causes Good Men to do Evil, I used the example of homosexuality to argue that being Orthodox causes... well, you read the title.

3) A few weeks later, on June 15, 2005, I segued neatly into the field of politics with my post Orthodox Jews and the GOP. As my blog has (micro!) evolved and questions of theism and Orthodoxy have become less immediate for me, politics has taken on a bigger and bigger role.

4) Two days after that, on June 17, 2005, I wrote about Malkie Schwartz and the Footsteps organization in the egregiously-long-titled Support for People From Ultra-Orthodox or Chassidic Communities Seeking to Enter or Explore the World Beyond Their Communities. This theme of reaching out to and attempting to help other people leaving Orthodox Judaism has continued to this day.

5) On October 16, 2005, I posted Letter to Dad, which was written by a lesbian to her intolerant, religious father. This was the first post of many about the intersection of homosexuality, religion, and politics, which has become something of a pet cause of mine.


I hereby tag XGH, because whose blog has evolved more entertainingly?; Andrew Sullivan, because his views have evolved so interestingly; Chana at The Curious Jew, because her blog has tracked her maturation from floundering teen to sophisticated college student; Mark at Pseudo-Polymath, because I missed his first couple of years; and the fellas at 2blowhards, because their blog has evolved so well.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Obama and Religion

I'm an atheist. Obama is very religious, perhaps the most religious of all the first-tier presidential candidates, perhaps the most religious since Jimmy Carter. Yet I continue to support him. Last night, blog-neighbor and longtime (in blog-years) correspondent Mark at Pseudo-Polymath asked how I could support Obama, given quotes like the following:
Sometimes this is a difficult road being in politics. Sometimes you can become fearful, sometimes you can become vain, sometimes you can seek power just for power’s sake instead of because you want to do service to God. I just want all of you to pray that I can be an instrument of God in the same way that Pastor Ron and all of you are instruments of God . . . We’re going to keep on praising together. I am confident that we can create a Kingdom right here on Earth.

The remarks were made at the Redemption World Outreach Center in South Carolina, an evangelical church.

Mark insinuates that I would have sharply criticized Bush for making similar statements and I think that's true. So how can I continue to support Obama? The short answer is that religion isn't everything. For the longer answer, keep reading.

I think there are two distinct but important prongs to the question of how Obama's religion affects his potential presidency. First, how does his religion inform his character? Second, how would it directly affect his policy choices if he were elected?

How does Obama's religion inform his character?

Religion can be a positive or negative influence on one's character. On the one hand, it can lead to humility, compassion, and selflessness, but on the other, it can lead to intellectual dishonesty, intolerance, and inflexibility.

Obama does not seem to suffer from the kind of intellectual dishonesty that plagues many religious people; nor is he afraid of doubt. Here's an enlightening exchange from an interview he did with Andrew Sullivan:
AS: This is I think one of the more (to me at least), the most interesting part of your candidacy. Because we live in a world in which atheism - militant, contemptuous atheism - is on the rise. Religious fundamentalism is clearly the strongest force. Your faith - this thought-through intellectual faith, in many ways, but also a communal faith – is beleaguered, isn’t it?

BO: You know, it doesn't get a lot of play these days. But, you know, reading Niebuhr, or Tillich or folks like that—those are the people that sustain me. What I believe in is overcoming - but not eliminating - doubt and questioning. I don't believe in an easy path to salvation. For myself or for the world. I think that it’s hard work, being moral. It's hard work being ethical. And I think that it requires a series of judgments and choices that we make every single day. And part of what I want to do as president is open up a conversation in which we are honestly considering our obligations - towards each other. And obligations towards the world.

Hard to imagine Bush reading Niebuhr or Tillich.

Although it's inconceivable to me that a presidential candidate would be extremely humble, Obama's faith does not seem to have given him the same lack of humility that I've mocked Bush for.

Here is Obama on gay marriage, for example, which I posted about here:
It is my obligation, not only as an elected official in a pluralistic society but also as a Christian, to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided, just as I cannot claim infallibility in my support of abortion rights. I must admit that I may have been infected with society's prejudices and predilections and attributed them to God; that Jesus' call to love one another might demand a different conclusion; and that in years hence I might be seen on the wrong side of history.

"I must admit that I may have been infected with society's prejudices and predilections and attributed them to God." Wow. Could you imagine George Bush doing that kind of introspection? "... that Jesus' call to love one another might demand a different conclusion." Wouldn't our country be better off if that sentiment were more common?

Obama appears to see faith as something that compels him towards compassion and social justice. From the CNN story above:
Obama said he was pleased that leaders in the evangelical community such as T.D. Jakes and Rick Warren were beginning to discuss social justice issues like AIDS and poverty in ways evangelicals were not doing before.

It's true that George Bush ran on a platform of "compassionate conservatism," but compassion and social justice do not appear to have played much role in his presidency, to say the least. Obama, like many or most liberal religious thinkers, appears to see social justice as a preeminent focus of religion. (Indeed "social justice" might be said to be the core value of Reform Judaism, something which is mocked by many Orthodox Jews.)

In the past few decades, politicians have invoked religion almost exclusively as a way of denying other peoples' rights (gay rights, abortion rights) or as part of the rhetoric of war (evildoers, etc.) I think that Obama sees himself as having the potential of undoing that disservice to both religion and our country:
"I think that what you're seeing is a breaking down of the sharp divisions that existed maybe during the '90s," said Obama. "At least in politics, the perception was that the Democrats were fearful of talking about faith, and on the other hand you had the Republicans who had a particular brand of faith that oftentimes seemed intolerant or pushed people away..."

"I think that's a healthy thing, that we're not putting people in boxes, that everybody is out there trying to figure out how do we live right and how do we create a stronger America," Obama said.

As I see it, Obama's faith has given him (or, more precisely, Obama has identified faith for giving him) a strong drive for social justice without the arrogance that the faithful sometimes have. He also indicates that he would stop the use of religion as a wedge issue in America and I think there's reason to believe that an Obama presidency could end much of the divisiveness in America and strip the religious right of some of its power.

How would Obama's religion directly affect his policy choices if he were elected?

I've already addressed the role Obama could play in re-balancing religion's influence on controversial issues like gay rights, abortion, and social justice. What about the separation of church and state? Well, here's the big man himself:
For my friends on the right, I think it would be helpful to remember the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy but also our religious practice. Folks tend to forget that during our founding, it wasn't the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the persecuted minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland who didn't want the established churches to impose their views on folks who were getting happy out in the fields and teaching the scripture to slaves.

It was the forbearers of Evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religious, because they didn't want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it. Given this fact, I think that the right might worry a bit more about the dangers of sectarianism.

Whatever we once were, we're no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of non-believers. We should acknowledge this and realize that when we're formulating policies from the state house to the Senate floor to the White House, we've got to work to translate our reasoning into values that are accessible to every one of our citizens, not just members of our own faith community.

In summary, I believe Obama to be the best kind of religious person: authentic, humble in his beliefs, compassionate, and driven towards social justice. He and I differ on the question of God's existence, but I believe that we share the same values. I post about atheism a lot because it's an important issue in my own life, having grown up in a community I had to leave, but I don't see being an atheist as more important than being a good person and I certainly don't think that people should vote for a candidate solely because he or she is more or less religious than another one.


  • Mark at Pseudo-Polymath asks how I can support Obama despite some disturbing religious statements he's made. It's a good question and although I replied at his place, I'll have to write a post about it.

  • John Cole, former Republican, tears into his old party for going horribly, horribly wrong.

  • Paul Krugman, on the other hand, argues that Bush is no departure for the GOP, but "the very model of a modern movement conservative." He does not mean that as a compliment.

  • Ben Avuyah wonders if outsourcing one's moral decisions to a rabbi leads to the atrophy of "moral musculature."

  • Some people are supporting Hillary just to make Rush Limbaugh's head explode.

  • New blogger Orthoprax Anonymous shares about a difficult conversation with his wife regarding his shift away from the religious beliefs he held when they got married.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Obama as Outsider

Every election we are inundated with candidates who attempt to portray themselves as Washington outsiders. Most of them are just play-acting. Obama is not. He has the facts behind him. Obviously, he's not a complete outsider -- he is a Senator, after all and a member of a major political party -- but compared to all other major candidates, he's a breath of fresh air. Four years after we invaded Iraq -- four years -- the Democrats have only managed to field a single candidate who both has the potential to be elected and was correct to oppose the war?

You didn't have to be a genius to see what was coming in 2003. I saw it. My family saw it and most of my friends saw it as well. The talk of the mushroom cloud was bullshit. The switch to "weapons of mass destruction" was ridiculous -- Saddam had chemical weapons in the 80s with our blessing. They weren't a threat to us then and they weren't a threat to us in 2003 -- even if he'd had them.

Even now, supporters of the president like to point out that the Democratic establishment was also wrong about the war. As if that's an excuse. The Democrats were spineless and feckless. I can't believe more than 10 of the Democratic senators who voted to give Bush the authorization believed Saddam was a legitimate threat to us.

The knock on Obama that he is "inexperienced" is laughable. If you're the general manager of an NBA team on draft day, given the choice between a star high-school player with an NBA body and an NBA mind or a four-year NCAA veteran of smaller stature and questionable judgment who has done nothing but lose, who are you going to go with? The one with "experience?" Or the one who can ball?

Excerpt from his speech at DePaul:
Five years ago today, I was asked to speak at a rally against going to war in Iraq. The vote to authorize the war in Congress was less than ten days away and I was a candidate for the United States Senate. Some friends of mine advised me to keep quiet. Going to war in Iraq, they pointed out, was popular. All the other major candidates were supporting the war at the time. If the war goes well, they said, you'll have thrown your political career away.

But I didn't see how Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat. I was convinced that a war would distract us from Afghanistan and the real threat from al Qaeda. I worried that Iraq's history of sectarian rivalry could leave us bogged down in a bloody conflict. And I believed the war would fan the flames of extremism and lead to new terrorism. So I went to the rally. And I argued against a "rash war" - a "war based not on reason, but on politics" - "an occupation of undetermined length, with undetermined costs, and undetermined consequences."

I was not alone. Though not a majority, millions of Americans opposed giving the President the authority to wage war in Iraq. Twenty-three Senators, including the leader of the Senate Intelligence Committee, shared my concerns and resisted the march to war. For us, the war defied common sense. After all, the people who hit us on 9/11 were in Afghanistan, not Iraq.

But the conventional thinking in Washington has a way of buying into stories that make political sense even if they don't make practical sense. We were told that the only way to prevent Iraq from getting nuclear weapons was with military force. Some leading Democrats echoed the Administration's erroneous line that there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. We were counseled by some of the most experienced voices in Washington that the only way for Democrats to look tough was to talk, act and vote like a Republican.

As Ted Sorensen's old boss President Kennedy once said "the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war" and frequently the words of the pursuer fall on deaf ears." In the fall of 2002, those deaf ears were in Washington. They belonged to a President who didn't tell the whole truth to the American people; who disdained diplomacy and bullied allies; and who squandered our unity and the support of the world after 9/11.

But it doesn't end there. Because the American people weren't just failed by a President - they were failed by much of Washington. By a media that too often reported spin instead of facts. By a foreign policy elite that largely boarded the bandwagon for war. And most of all by the majority of a Congress - "a coequal branch of government" - that voted to give the President the open-ended authority to wage war that he uses to this day. Let's be clear: without that vote, there would be no war.

Some seek to rewrite history. They argue that they weren't really voting for war, they were voting for inspectors, or for diplomacy. But the Congress, the Administration, the media, and the American people all understood what we were debating in the fall of 2002. This was a vote about whether or not to go to war. That's the truth as we all understood it then, and as we need to understand it now. And we need to ask those who voted for the war: how can you give the President a blank check and then act surprised when he cashes it?

With all that we know about what's gone wrong in Iraq, even today's debate is divorced from reality. We've got a surge that is somehow declared a success even though it has failed to enable the political reconciliation that was its stated purpose. The fact that violence today is only as horrific as in 2006 is held up as progress. Washington politicians and pundits trip over each other to debate a newspaper advertisement while our troops fight and die in Iraq.

And the conventional thinking today is just as entrenched as it was in 2002. This is the conventional thinking that measures experience only by the years you've been in Washington, not by your time spent serving in the wider world. This is the conventional thinking that has turned against the war, but not against the habits that got us into the war in the first place -- the outdated assumptions and the refusal to talk openly to the American people.

Oh, and by the way, Obama isn't too shabby with a basketball, either.