Thursday, April 30, 2009

Why were/are you Religious?

In the last week I've run into a few discussions as to the basis of our religious beliefs/practices. Over at this thread at Three Jews, Four Opinions I had an exchange with Evanston Jew which turned on the basis for a sustainable Judaism.

I won't focus as much on what brand of Judaism is sustainable in the long run (if any). What I want to explore is the reasons we believed/believe in whatever religious beliefs we have/had. I had a discussion with a former Chossid last week, and we were talking about why we were Frum. In the end it came down to the difference between our upbringing; he was a Chossid, I wasn't. Now let's backtrack, why are/were we Frum, or better yet religious, regardless of particular orientation.

For the purposes of this discussion, I will combine the possible reasons for belief in two categories:

1) Because one believes in the truth claims of, and evidence for one's religion, which logically brings one to follow it since it is the right path based on the truth.

2) Because one feels a spiritual/emotional connection with his religion. It speaks to him, it fulfills some need in his 'soul' if you will.

Within the two categories may lie a wide variety of people, laymen and clergy, the more and less intelligent, the old and the young, newcomers and people born into their faith. Let's explore each category separately. In the first category we have people who believe in the historical claims of their faith, be it God's existence, revelation, an afterlife, divine providence and so forth. Based on these beliefs, they understand that they have an obligation to follow the prescriptions of their faith. Going against their faith would mean defying God, and doing harm to oneself. It must be noted that people in this category need not be mechanical robots. They could have a very thorough understanding of how and why the practices of their religion are meaningful and carry a weight that gives them an actual impact on reality. Nevertheless, the basic foundation of their belief is the factual truth claims of their faith, in which they believe. Why they believe in these claims varies from person to person. Some simply take it as a matter of tradition or authority, others have taken it upon themselves to investigate the matter, and have come to the conclusion that the tenets of their faith are logically deducible. Regardless, the deciding factor in their belief is a conviction in the truthfulness of these claims for whatever reason.

In the second category we have people who feel that the spirit of their faith speaks to them. They get some inner fulfillment from their religious practices or beliefs, or the see their faith as some manifestation of how they see and feel the cosmos. Here we also have a wide variety of people. For example some have a strong desire in helping their fellow man. They see this as the ultimate goal in man's life, and their religion is the channel through which they express this goal. Others may think of God and his connection to man, and employ their faith as an arena where this manifests itself. The common thread is that these people feel that their faith fulfills them in some way, which is independent of the particular truth claims of their given religion. In other words, if they were to become convinced of the falsehood of positions their faith holds as true, and that all the particular facts that it puts forth as proofs of its veracity in fact never happened, they would still be left with the basic reason for continuing with their religion. It would still speak to them on some level.

The differences are not as easy to perceive as it may seem. For example people in the former category can be stereotyped as those that get hung up on insignificant details at the expense of internalizing their faith's main message. The latter group can be generalized as those who are floating in the clouds, without a grasp on reality. But the opposite may in fact be true. Certainly these generalization are often true. Nevertheless, some people may be very pedantic in their faith, thinking that these minor details carry some cosmological significance (Mekubbolim for example). Others may have a very rationalistic approach to their faith, which is solidly built upon the findings of their investigation. And in spite of believing that all the laws and practices of their religion are a product of God's will, they may attach little importance to them, preferring to focus on the fundamentals.

Now which faith is stronger, more sustainable. It would certainly seem that the latter kind of faith, which is based on the heart and is part of the person himself rather than some external reasons, which are always subject to change. But it isn't that simple. For some, the latter path is not an option. There is no inner feeling that is strong enough to nurture a whole religion. There simply isn't anything there. This is the type of faith I had. Truth be told, it was very strong in its time. Why, because I truly believed in the main tenets of the Torah, and as a logical consequence felt obligated to follow the Torah. I did have somewhat of a connection to the religion on an emotional level, but it was very insignificant. Consequently, when my conviction that the Torah's claims about revelation, history, and God were either false or a guess just as good as anyone's, the floor was taken from under my faith. I remember that the only tough time I had on an emotional rather than intellectual level during my transition, was when it hit me that there is no afterlife. I couldn't eat or sleep for three days, but after that I was as fresh as spring flower. But this was the only faith I could have had. And when the foundation went, I was left with nothing but hot air.

This is how I am, and I know that there are others who would say the same for themselves. If someone is to say that it's shallow, I won't argue. I will say though that the other way is too speculative. I don't mean to trade barbs. I mean to point out that it depends on the person. What for me was based on a clear and (what I believed then) an airtight logic, is to you shallow. And what for you is a life based on spirituality and an inner sense of self and the world, is to me baseless speculation and Chalomos.

EJ, on the aforementioned thread seemed surprised at my remark, and wrote:
"No one, not one, ever says what you say "I am or was religious but not spiritual."

Well you have one, and I think that there are more. I won't argue with you if you meant that no one ever says that "I was religious but not at all spiritual" but you seem to be implying that spirituality is an important and even self sustaining factor for everyone. With this I strongly disagree. Some people are decidedly "nonspiritual" in the sense that it plays a very minor if any role in their life. By spiritual, I mean something that can't be grasped either by the senses or the intellect, something in the soul (again, for lack of a better term).

I hope I got the main idea across, it's a hard line to pinpoint. For this post, I ask the readers to comment more than other times, because I think we can clarify the issue with a view from different angles.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Interview with a "Heiseh Atheist"

Lately I have been running into more and more a mindless drivel of comments on certain blogs. Basically you have some "bright intellectuals" (Uber-Chachomim), who shall remain unnamed (although my readers should have no difficulty figuring it out), in our midst here in the J-blogsphere who have switched allegiance from one God/Godol/Rebbe system to another. And if you dare question their certainty in any of the tenets of their newly found faith, oh no, you better be ready for a good serving of some verbal abuse. And it's not unfounded you know, because anyone who doesn't agree with them is automatically part of the other side, the dark forces of evil, the obstacles of progress and the second coming of Richard Dawkins.

In the spirit of the latest fad in the J-blogsphere of conducting interviews, the following is an interview with one such devout member of the new faith and crusader against the backwards forces of anti whatever he happens to think on that day after two and a half shots of whiskey, a little porn or the hell knows what:

Me: So what made you change your mind from being a blind follower of Gdolim, who believed in every last word they said, without even contemplating if they said it in the first place - to someone who follows this or that atheist mobilizer without ever stopping to think about what he is saying or if you even understand what he is saying.

OTD Crusader: Because I was looked at with the wrong eye by my Morah in preschool, pointed at with a ruler by the second-grade Rebbi, given a Knass in 10th grade, and not allowed to masturbate as much as I'd like to. All of this led me to realize that the God/Gdolim/Rebbe idolizing is not for me. Also I wasn't supposed to curse people back then no matter how wrong they were. So instead I switched to believing in Dawkins and the atheist revolution. As part of the initiation rites, I must blog and curse as many people who disagree with me about the most inconsequential things. Even people who don't believe in religion, or may even be atheists.

Me: But did you investigate whether your new found belief is universally correct, or if it's possibly mistaken in some part or detail, because those that you chose to follow now are also human and may err in something.

OTD Crusader: @#$% you. How dare you question me. Don't you know that now in the new world order of atheistic democracy, the only free speech allowed is that which is unmistakebly anti religious and pro the new god of earth Dawkins, or Harris, or me. Anything else which is not 100% anti religion is to be condemned and its proponent cursed and shunned as a uncivilized savage. This should be done even if I'm so stupid as to not understand what's being spoken. My marching orders are such: if I don't hear some blasphemy, the speaker must be expounding counter-revolutionary propaganda.

Me: So what will happen to all those say 99.9% of humanity who either aren't atheist or are atheist but aren't as vehemently anti religious as they ought to be. What will happen to those that think for themselves, don't follow the leader, and happen to come to a different conclusion than the party line.

OTD Crusader: Ah, now you ask well. You know that those who don't study history are bound to repeat its mistakes. We crusaders do study history, and we need not go far back to find a solution. In the last century we actually had a very good system of combating counter-revolutionary sentiments. Those who will not follow the leader and convert to the new faith will be dealt with accordingly.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

How to learn Dikduk

I think that this is very funny, and I would imagine some readers would agree. For others, I would need to give a Hakdmah as to why I think it's funny, which I won't do. But if you don't get it, don't feel bad. I hope my mind wasn't twisted enough to understand such things, let alone come up with them.

Last night by the Seuda, some Chassidim were discussing a certain Rebbe, when he ascended the throne, and other such pertinent issues. For some reason it popped into my twisted mind: what would be the proper way of saying someone became a Rebbe in Hebrew? So according to proper Dikduk, using the פיעל of אדמו"ר, we have the following little chart of proper Dikduk:

Future Present Past
First person אני אתאדמר אני מתאדמר אני התאדמרתי
Second person אתה תתאדמר אתה מתאדמר אתה התאדמרת
Third person הוא יתאדמר הוא מתאדמר הוא התאדמר

Imagine if your daughter is coming home from school, and instead of the monotonous הוא הלך and אתה תלך, you hear: אני התאדמרתי and אתה מתאדמר. It would definitely spice up the day a bit.

Hope you guys enjoy.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Undoubtedly Beyond Any Reason

"Beyond a Reasonable Doubt" by Rabbi Shmuel Waldman

I am ashamed to admit that I read through most of this book in the past few days. I did so because a certain Rav with whom I have a very good relationship asked me to read through it. Yes, I'm being Kiruved, but being that he is a very reasonable man whose companionship I value, I acquiesced to his request. Admittedly he is naive in having me read this, but that's his business.

In any event, I must warn you before I launch into my Kefirotic tirade. I do so, because the author of the book himself warns against reading the book, or certain parts thereof, unless it's necessary. I'll paraphrase his warning, the gist of which is as follows:

"Since I will be talking about things which Chas V'Sholom can Chas V'Sholom bring one Chas V'Sholom Chas V'Sholom to Chas V'Sholom Chas V'Sholom Chas V'Sholom doubt any part of the Holy Toira Chas V'Sholom Chas V'Sholom, I BS"D hope, and ask that only readers who already Lo Aleibu Chalila are having Chas V'Sholom d..d..oub..ts Chalila V'Chas V'Sholom Lo Aleinu open and read this book. If you've picked up this book, and you Baruch Hashem BS"D have no Sfeikois Cholilaa V'Chas about the holy Toira, I trust you will heed Daas Toira and drop this book, never to think of it again. So only those who Lo Aleinu Nebach Chas V'Sholom have a need to strengthen their Emuna against doubts Chas V'Sholom, are allowed to read this book."

This is the warning, and having paid homage to it (in the spirit of Satmar websites banning the Internet), we proceed to 'critique' this masterpiece. The first three chapters are the main points being made; proofs of God's existence, proofs to the Torah, and proofs that there is punishment and an afterlife. These chapters and an appendix 'disproving' the theory of evolution are the main thrust of the book. Other gems of 'proofs' include 'proving' Moshiach, and the resurrection of the dead. In addition there are chapters about the uniqueness of Klal Yisroel, it's survival in exile, and the 'right' attitude towards the holocaust. I only read through the first two chapters, and an appendix titled "The Downfall of the Theory of Evolution". More than that I couldn't read, I hope the readers will forgive me.

The first thing that struck me was the lack of command of the English language. It's written as if by a seventh grader. Now, I'm no professor of English, but a book of a few hundred pages should live up to some standards. Admittedly, a book shouldn't be judged by its cover or the writer's command of the language, it's content that matters, but it did leave a bad taste in my mouth. Alas, on the content front, it was immeasurably worse. I can hear the readers murmuring to themselves, "what was he expecting? It's a Kiruv book for goodness sake". True, and as mentioned I wasn't expecting much, I was reading it as a courtesy to this Rav. But this one was worse than anything else. I've read other Kiruv (or similar) books, some of them at least try to sound a bit knowledgeable of the subject matter they're discussing. Of the two main topics in the book, the theory of evolution, and the Torah's historicity and circumstances of its origin, he knows so little as to not even realize the immensity of ignorance he has to hide.

Now to the subject matter.

The first chapter, titled "Compelling Evidence of a Creator" starts of with the usual examples of the intricately complex and wonderfully interwoven systems found in nature. The orange and the banana, how they turn ripe and acquire a bright color at the same time, thereby attracting animals, as if knowing how to do so. From that he goes onto the Venus fly trap, bats and their system of echolocation, the complexity of the human body and the brain etc. All of this to show that it's statistically impossible for any of these phenomena to arise randomly. I assume all the readers know that, so I won't go into explaining why he was destroying a straw man. Waldman also realizes that for those 'tainted' by the theory of evolution as he puts it, one needs more than just showing the impossibility of generating such complex systems randomly. He writes that he intentionally didn't discuss the theory of evolution in the first chapter and left it in the appendix, so that only those who (Nebach, Chas V'Sholom) are in need for such refutations read them.

So let's get to the appendix titled "The Downfall of the Theory of Evolution" and see if that gets us anywhere. He begins by differentiating between macroevolution and microevolution, how the latter occurs within a species, and the former leads to new species. Microevolution is an observed fact, but it doesn't necessarily lead to macroevolution, bla bla bla. Here we come to this piece of brilliance:
"It's interesting to note that in the 1980's many professional scientists decided to accept the facts as they saw them, and the facts clearly pointed to a God. So they developed the "anthropic principle" which suggests that the universe is "man-centered," created by God, with one of man's functions being the responsibility to recognize the amazing design that God put into the universe."
What!?!? Does he know what the anthropic principle is. Where did here about it? I know that some people use the anthropic principle to argue for intelligent design, but scientists "developing the anthropic principle... which suggests the universe is created by God, with one of man's functions being the responsibility to recognize the amazing design that God... " how ignorant can you be. He doesn't have a library in town? A computer? But no, there is still more. Another quote:
"(theory: the Random House dictionary tells us that this is an explanation that has not yet been proven true)"
Only ignoramuses use this definition of theory pertaining to evolution, any dictionary will use the theory of evolution as an example of a scientific system, proven by observations and experiments.

The two basic problems he has with evolution, are mutations and the fossil record. Mutations, he rightfully notes, are almost always harmful. The problem is that he doesn't understand that given enough time, natural selection will favor those rare beneficial mutations, which can evolve into new species. This he conspicuously fails to mention.
The fossil problem he divides in two. The first one is summed up in the following quote:
"Even in the lowest strata we find fossils of the most complex living forms which according to evolutionists couldn't have developed until a much later date."
This claim as far as I know is not true, Waldman himself only quotes one source, also a sign that he couldn't find much more than that, because he loves to quote these type of things.
If anyone has more information on this, please let me know.

The second part of the fossil argument, is the beloved gap problem. I actually do think that there is a problem here, namely that the gaps seem to be large in many cases. What I mean is that, unlike Waldman who doesn't know what he is talking about when he clamors for his bird with half a wing, something that would never happen for obvious reasons. What I'm talking about is that often there are large gaps between specimen, something that one should find less of if all species fossilize randomly. What Waldman doesn't mention is the rarity of fossilization, and how some species are only known from a few fossils, which mitigates (although I think doesn't eradicate) the gap problem.

The last point he discusses, is the age of the universe. Here we have another display of scholarship:
"It's also interesting to note that it has been shown that the methods that scientists use to date different material such as carbon dating, etc. have many inaccuracies."
I won't even discuss the nonsense this is based on, I think the readers are familiar with it, we all know that each of the dating methods are relatively accurate for their respective purposes. But this guy uses carbon dating inaccuracies to show the problem of dating the world as billions of years old. Does he even know what carbon dating is? Does he know anything about it except how to spell it? I'm afraid not.

I do think that the theory of evolution has its shortcomings. First and foremost, as far as I'm concerned it doesn't explain the origin of life. I know all the supposed tries to do so, but they don't cut it for me. I haven't seen anything close to a satisfying explanation of the rise of self replicating systems, life's building blocks. This though doesn't disprove the theory of evolution, it just shows that the theory is either lacking, or not yet fully understood. If someone is so sure as to the only solution to this problem being God, so be it. I think it may be the only solution for now, but it also may be an answer based on ignorance rather than knowledge, because otherwise evolution has too much behind it.
I also find it difficult at times to wrap my head around the idea that all of this complexity is a result of a blind mechanism. If someone feels that this also is only explainable by intelligent design, maybe. I have a suspicion it's unnecessary.
I think that an honest attempt to identify the shortcomings of the theory of evolution, based on a proper understanding of theory, would go only about as far as this paragraph. But obviously Waldman is writing a Kiruv book, and Chas V'Sholom that such a book be based on an actual understanding of science.

I think the post is already way longer than I originally intended, and I'm only half way through. I still didn't get to the real juicy part, chapter two: "The Divine Origin of the Torah." So stay tuned for that display of analytical thought.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Series: "Uberchumradoxius" its Development and Causes Thereof

Last year (7,654 A.D.) I was at a conference and I became aware of a new area of research. The topic being researched is the phenomenon of a certain subspecies called Uberchumradoxius* which is now extinct, but has been of great interest lately in the scientific community. Two opposing camps with diametrically opposed views as to the development of Uberchumradoxius have risen in the scientific community.
One camp hypothesizes that the subspecies evolved naturally amongst the general population. They theorize that the earliest forms of Uberchumradoxius had just slight deviations from regular specimen. With time these were accentuated by natural selection and continued mutations, which were favored due to the peculiar environment that was the habitat of Uberchumradoxius.
The opposing camp ridicules this theory, pointing out the anti-natural nature of the subspecies, its hazardous tendencies towards itself and its habitat, behaviors that would absolutely preclude the selection of this subspecies even in very controlled environments. If natural selection was running its course, this latter camp claims, the first even slightly deviant specimen with tendencies resembling anything similar to Uberchumradoxius would probably not have survived into adulthood to procreate, and any offspring thereof would have certainly died in infancy. So destructive to its own survival are the behaviors of Uberchumradoxius. This is an accepted fact, and no one in the scientific community doubts the long-term repercussions to itself that the behavior of Uberchumradoxius ultimately poses.
The former camp maintains though, that in the short-term there were benefits to being a Uberchumradoxius as opposed to a normal specimen, given the peculiar environment of Uberchumradoxius. The latter camp disagrees with this vehemently, stating unequivocally that no benefits favored by natural selection can be found in the behaviors of Uberchumradoxius. So how does this camp account for the prolonged existence of Uberchumradoxius? They claim that the only possible cause could be something called "Intelligent Design". What they mean by this peculiar term is that some force with intelligence, favored the development of Uberchumradoxius. This force was able to steer Uberchumradoxius through the otherwise swift end it would have met at the hands of natural selection. The subspecies was able to produce viable offspring with even more accentuated traits that are the hallmark of Uberchumradoxius. As of yet, no satisfactory explanation has been given as to the nature and motives of this force. Speculations range from extraterrestrial experiments, to others who claim some type of long-term benefit for the general species, which learned to avoid tendencies exhibited by Uberchumradoxius because of its relatively quick demise. This camp admits that none of their speculations are sane, but they claim being forced into them by the absolute improbability of natural selection favoring Uberchumradoxius under any circumstances.

That's a synopsis of the scholarship on the topic to date.

Upcoming in the series:
Arguments pro and con presented by both sides, and snippets of conversation I overheard between proponents of the differing views at the conference.

*Origin: German Uber - above, more; Chumra is an obscure word from the now dead Aramaic, here a connotation of extreme; Latin doxius - a derivation from dox - belief, opinion

Monday, April 20, 2009

Kids in Bnei Brak: Serves Bnei Brak right?

Vos Iz Neias has a report here about some local kids who vandalized a Shul and burnt some Sforim on Shabbos. And here is a follow up piece, blaming the extremism of Kannoim who populate Bnei Brak in overabundance (not that they're needed anywhere else they may be). Before seeing the latter piece, the same thing came to mind. Most kids who go off the "straight and narrow" aren't antagonistic enough to burn a Shul. There is a certain amount of reverence that any normal person has, and even kids who find themselves as outcasts within the community, don't go this far.

Unless, they're from Bnei Brak it seems. Possibly the craziest town in Israel (and that's saying something) seems to produce such bitter feelings amongst its Uisvorfs, that they only match the level of craziness in which they grew up. So I guess it serves the Kannoim right, to get a bit of their own medicine.

Nevertheless, a certain portion of youth, no matter where they grow up, go sour. I don't mean to exonerate the Charedi community of its educational shortcomings. To the contrary, the system seems to be crumbling more and more with each passing day under the weight of its own absurdity, and in a place like Bnei Brak, it seems to bring out the worst in people. That being said, no community can ensure that all its children mature into model citizens, and some kids may be just no good. After all, I don't think the Charedi community is much better at educating than society at large, and these things do happen.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Introductory Post

This is something I've been thinking about for a while now, to write or not to write? As a word of caution to anyone reading this, I'm not a good writer. I've written a total of a few dozen pages in my entire life. Nevertheless, I thought I would try this out. I've been commenting on various blogs of this type for over a year now under the name 'Mark' and I thought I would see what it would be to have a place to call home. So I ask the reader to bear with me, and indulge me while I go through the growing pains.

Now to the blog itself. As you can tell from the title and description, I like a little Litzonus, it helps me get through the day, and especially through the craziness that's called Orthodox Judaism. It's simply a survival tool. I hope though, that I'll contribute more than just a few jokes to the conversation. I hope to talk about how I got from A to Z. In other words, from a completely Frum Jew, who was convinced of the fundamental truths of Judaism, the veracity of Tanach, and in the possibility of demonstrating these truths beyond any doubt; to a total Apikores, someone who is certain that the whole enterprise of religion in general, and Judaism in particular is a load of hot air, Sheker V'Chozov. I'll try to steer the conversation clear of personal undertones, using my experiences and observations to illustrate how people think etc.
In addition, I'll be commenting on the happenings within the Orthodox community, 'insights' on the Parsha (analytical, and less serious), and anything else interesting me that's within the sphere of the conversation.

Another feature of this blog will be the "Posuk of the Day". Being that I'm somewhat of a Tanach junkie, I like to use Psukim to express my mood or to bring home a point. I'll use Koheles (my favorite Sefer in Tanach) often, but Psukim from all over Tanach will appear. A disclaimer: although it's titled "Posuk of the Day" it won't be daily, but I'll try to keep it fresh.

Now, 1, 2, 3, dive. Let's see what gives.