Wednesday, April 12, 2006

And You Shall Tell Your Children On That Day...

My son once asked me how children could possibly believe in Santa Clause. How, after all, could anyone believe that he delivered gifts to children all over the world in a single night, especially since there was a much more logical explanation – that the gifts were from their parents.

This is what I told him:

“Jewish children believe that Eliyahu Hanavi comes to each seder and takes a drink of wine. We all pour him a glass of wine, open the door, and stand up when he is supposed to be there, invisible. Children believe in Eliyahu because their parents tell then that it is true, and act as if it is happening. This is the same reason that non-Jewish children believe in Santa.”

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Objective Morality without God

It is a common belief that, without a divinely inspired morality, our moral systems are inherently relative. Man, with his limited intellect, earthly temptations, and subjective judgment, could not hope to arrive at any true definition of right and wrong. At best, a system of relative morality could be adopted, which could be imposed on a specific population for a limited time. But such a system would necessarily reflect the flawed reasoning, and limited understanding of mankind.

I grew up with the notion that such relative systems, could be extremely dangerous. Take, as an extreme, but not isolated case, at Nazi Germany. Once the assumption that Aryans were racially superior, and that Jews were a threat, was accepted, then persecution and genocide were not immoral. On the contrary, the Holocaust was a highly moral action - within the specific assumptions and relative thinking of the Nazis.

Objective Human Morality does exist, and is a beautifully elegant and eternal code. It is based on the simple and undeniable truth that the human race shares a single planet. Man does not live alone, but in community. While the principle sounds very simplistic, it has vast, sweeping consequences:

- Objective Morality is the law which governs how man can live together.

- Behaviors which will make it impossible for people to live together successfully are prohibited.

Or, as Hillel said, “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man”.

What are some of the consequences of this?

You may not murder someone else, regardless of what prejudices you hold.
You can not steal.
You can not enslave.
You can not cause physical harm.
You can not oppress.

You can do anything in the whole wide world which does not harm your fellow man.

Note that this is very different from the concept in the Bible of “Love thy neighbor as you yourself.” This concept works only in the abstract. If it were to be objectified in the same way as Hillel’s concept, everything would go haywire. You do not give your neighbor your food, your car, your tuition, your PIN number. Essentially, you don’t love your many neighbors as you love yourself. (If you are somewhat rational.) So, one can say that this is a metaphor for altruistic behavior, which is highly laudable. But is not a concrete moral concept.

One of the fallacies about objective morality is that it is a system of defining what the ‘ultimate good’ consists of. While that may be a nice thing to think about when you’re waiting in line at the supermarket, it is completely different from and irrelevant to morality. Ultimate good, or ultimate purpose is a concept which is very individual, and just as people have different personalities and skills, and therefore have different jobs which they enjoy and excel at, they also have different paths to their own self-actualization. ("Life-Purpose without God" will have to wait for a future post.)

How do we know that the "Hillel" system of morality is, in fact objectively moral? Are we accepting the precepts of the Declaration of Independence "That all men are created equal"? No, although I certainly hope that such an idea stands on it's own merit. All that we are assuming is that for a person to have the expectation that he will maintain his basic rights, he must respect the rights of others. You can not lay claim to your own right to live if you kill others. You can not expect that your ownership of property will be protected unless you respect the right of your fellow man to own property. This has been called 'Reciprocal Morality', and perhaps that name fits, but whatever the name, the idea is based on the single basic fact of community.

Unfortunately, the existence of a moral system does not ensure moral conduct. The history of our world is filled with the story of the struggle of morality to emerge. People violate moral law, sometimes out of economic desperation, sometimes out of selfish aggression, often because of a notion which places their own humanity above that of others.

The story of the human race, from the beginnings of history up to the preset, is the story of the slow, imperfect, non-monotonic adoption of morality. To a great degree, the process mirrors the globalization of mankind. At the dawn of civilization, man could define their community of 'fellow men' only in very local terms. As transportation and communications gradually grew, that community grew to include regions, nations, countries, and, ultimately, the world.

But it is a story not only of geographic inclusion but of intellectual inclusion. Immoral behavior has been caused and justified by theories of exclusion. Ideas take hold which teach that a certain person or group is excluded from the 'fellow man' group, or even from the human race. They can be based on a theory of prejudice, they can be taught as 'God given' concepts, they can be motivated by selfish expedience, or by hatred. As our planet has evolved, many prejudices and fears have slowly been overcome. Tragically, many have not.

Objective human morality offers challenges. It does not obviate the need for examination of social ethics. Can you kill in self-defense, and how far can you take that concept? Can you impose restrictions which limit freedom in order to preserve security? (These same questions must be asked within the ‘divine’ moral systems which have been proposed.) Also, while the principle is absolute and unchanging, it recognizes the fact of social context. If a society has the custom of greeting someone by pinching their cheek, then that is not a ‘hateful’ behavior for that specific society, though it may be for others.

But, unlike divine morality, human morality offers no excuses. You can not kill idol worshipers. You can not oppress those who believe differently. You can not persecute people for their race or sexual orientation.

Not in the past, not now, not in the future.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

mizmor l'dovid

מזמור לדוד, קינה לדוד מיבעי ליה? אמר ר' שמעון בן אבישלום, משל למה הדבר דומה. לאדם שיצא עליו שטר חוב. קודם שפרעו היה עצב, לאחר שפרעו שמח. אף כן דוד

A song of David? It should say 'A lamentation of David'. Rav Shimon son of Avishalom said, "To what does this compare. To a person who owes a debt; before he has repaid, he is miserable. Once he has repaid, he is joyful. So it is with David."

Berachos 7b


Throw me a rope, I think I am falling

My legs are spent, I can’t walk on anymore

I can’t see ahead because my eyes are burning

I’m lost just like a child in a storm


Stand with me, I haven’t got the courage

Keep me from the fire and the scorn

Hold me so I’ll feel my strength returning

My soul is empty, and my mind is numb


But you said, I can’t climb this mountain for you

I can’t lead you down a path that’s not your own

I can’t ease the pain that you feel deep inside you

But I love who you are, I hold you in my heart,
and I know that you’ll find your way again


Once I thought I had a star to guide me

A compass which would see me through my years

I had a voice to talk to in confusion

And a place to go to calm my doubts and fears


But now the stars hold only questions

The paths which seemed so wide just lead nowhere

The voices sing a song without a reason

And walls of shelter disappear


And you say, son, the stars don’t hold your answers

Just dreaming dreams will never heal your pain

Look at yourself, that path is right inside you

You know who you are, so come and make a start,
and I know that you’ll find your place again


If you think this is bad, you should hear the melody.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Agnostic Fundamentalism?

"I find that I cannot conceive of a Universe that just sprang into existence by itself. I find that all the intricate and specific laws on which our Universe operates leads to an ordered existence that I cannot believe was a cosmic accident. I find that when I study the extremely intricate and complex biochemical pathways through which our cells produce energy or through which it stores genetic information or through anything that makes life as we know it possible I am struck with a sense of awe and I cannot make sense of it unless I suppose some kind of design."

This was posted by "Orthoprax" in a very interesting and honest self-assessment of his belief system. The writer is a ‘skeptical’ Orthodox Jew, who writes on topics related both to the practice of orthodoxy and its philosophical implications. (And, since it is a departure from Orthoprax’s usual skeptical outlook, Godol Hador dedicated a post to quoting and discussing his ideas.)

For all of my own agnosticism, I have a lot of empathy for this argument. This is a sort of composite of what I consider to be the two most compelling intuitive arguments for belief in a spiritual universe (or God, or creator, etc.).

1. The ‘First Fact’ problem: It seems that no matter how big the bang was, something must have pre-dated it. Time is, or at least appears to be, an infinite continuum, and either matter or energy had to exist for the bang to take place.

2. The ‘System Complexity’ problem: Evolution, as currently understood, seems to fall short in explaining how biological systems of such mind-boggling complexity such as DNA and the Optic Nerve could have developed, even with billions of years in which to evolve.

There are scientific theories which deal with these issues. For example, String Theory and General Relativity can produce a perpetual universe in which Time (as we experience it) is a variable which has relevance only to certain conditions.

Still, these are just theories, not answers, and I can well understand the choice which Orthoprax makes that believing in an intelligent creator is just more compelling. One cannot prove or disprove the existence of God, but don't these questions offer obvious hints?

So why don’t I choose to believe? How can I be so committed to agnosticism? And is it worth giving up faith in order to choose…nothing…uncertainty? What is the point of that?

Let me try to explain two postulates:

1. Where Science Ends, Mythology Begins:

Thousands of years ago, Man could not explain the rising and setting of the sun, the stars, nor the change of seasons. Perhaps some people had outlandish theories about planets and planetary motion, but these theories were far less compelling than the complex mythology which emerged and took hold. As the ability of science to explain the natural universe has expanded, the line of where mythology is used to fill in the gaps of understanding has receded (though not without a fight).

We find ourselves in the same position today, though we speak of more sophisticated issues. Currently, the frontier of scientifically proven understanding stands at the great questions of the origins and nature of the cosmos, and the mechanisms of the development of intelligent life. But we must still make the same decision as Mankind did at the dawn of history; do we assume that what we do not understand can not be explained rationally and create myths, or do we assume that our lack of understanding does not compel a supernatural answer.

It is very difficult to accept a world in which such obvious questions remain unanswered. We have the same primordial drive to understand our universe as our ancestors did. That desire - to understand our world - is what motivated ancient man to create pagan mythology, and it is the same urge which compels us to postulate a creator.

This does not negate, and certainly does not disprove, the theory of God, but to me it frames the problem differently. The unexplained phenomena which seems so compelling to us today are no more compelling than the onset of a rainstorm was to early man.

This leads to the second principle:

2. The Un-provability of God is, in Itself, Determinative:

If we can not prove or disprove God, what does that tell us about our life purpose? I understand the argument that, for the universe to offer freedom of choice, God can fundamentally not be provable. However, I do not agree with the corollary; that therefore belief in God is a righteous choice of faith.


To me, the opposite is true, if there is a God, He does not want us to suspend rational thought, He does not want us to use emotional arguments as proof of His existence(1), He does not want us to make a ‘best guess’ at His being, and He certainly does not want us to adopt belief as an expedient to avoid punishment or achieve reward.

Wouldn’t God want us to seek morality based upon what He actually gave us, not a myth of revelation, but a capacity to learn, to feel and to reason? Wouldn’t He want us to choose a life purpose which was meaningful and satisfying whether or not our existence ended with death or not – whether He exists or not?

And, certainly, if our religious beliefs hindered us by teaching us to subvert our reason, to doubt our own rational process, and to accept beliefs which were prejudiced and immoral, would it not be our higher calling to question these beliefs?

(1) Those emotions being our drive to understand our universe, to lend purpose to our lives, to avoid death, etc..

Monday, April 03, 2006

New Branch of Judaism Formed

Tachanun to be Omitted on Godol Hador’s Birthday:
Halacha to remain otherwise unchanged.

What do people do when they no longer believe in the classic orthodox Jewish dogma that the Torah was revealed on Mount Sinai to Moses, and that all of the laws and practices which are adhered to today are reflections of that revelation?

Over the past few months, during my still nascent blogging career, I have been observing with fascination the evolving metamorphosis of super-blogger Godol Hador, the Eddie Van Halen of skeptical orthodox riff making. In his blog, which ranks among the most well written and humorous of those which I read, GH discusses and debunks many of the issues which lie at the uncomfortable border between acceptable orthodox belief and apostasy. He explores the origins of the bible, the place of myths and miracles, the principles of free will and afterlife, the role of science, the requirements of faith, and many similar topics. At the same time, he fires, in approximately equal helpings, his sharp, amusing and well crafted diatribes at orthodox fundamentalists and skeptical non-believers (and basically at anyone who doesn’t agree with him, i.e. everyone).

While GH rarely stated his own views outright, it was becoming more and more obvious over the past few months that his belief in the historical accuracy of the Torah was, well, a thing of the past. He was beginning to focus less on what threads to hold on to and wrote more about where he could find his ‘soft landing’.

Here’s onememorable riff(Mormons being the topic at hand):

“It’s amazing how people can believe such obvious nonsense. Boruch Hashem I’m not a Mormon, but instead an Orthodox Jew. Err, better make that a Modern Orthodox Jew. Errr, make that a Rational Modern Orthodox Jew. OK, a Maskilishe Rational Modern Orthodox Jew. Oh just forget I mentioned it. OK? I said forget it.”

One of the most interesting things about this was that, for all of his skepticism, GH was not for a minute considering leaving orthodox practice. The reasons he presented for this, while not among his most logical discourses, were heartfelt. He argued that, while the exact basis of Judaism could be questioned, the spiritual benefits of observing halacha were self-evident.

So what was going on with GH? To understand the picture, here is a summary of Godol’s take on life:

1. Without God, all morality is ‘relative’. There is no moral basis for declaring any right and wrong.
2. Non-believers are an unhappy group who drift through life without meaning or purpose.
3. Non-religious society lacks the strong social and communal strength of religious society.

Actually, GH finds himself in a place where many orthodox jews come to, at least for a time. The principlas of belief are gone, but all of the other pulls towards religion - the moral certainty, the purposefulness of each life decision, the comfort and acceptance of community – all are still in tact.

Some people ultimately leave, as I did, and endure the mess and difficulties of dealing with the people in ones life who are affected by this. Some do nothing; the ideological issue is simply not important enough to cause a change. Some people find a new story to value their religious practices without believing in the underling dogma.

But for GH, the answer was rather different - he created a new religion, or, to be more accurate, a recasting of the definition of the existing ‘Modern Orthodox’ (MO) religion.

According the Godol, ‘Real’ MO adherents do not, in fact, believe in the literal story of the bible, nor do they believe in the classic story of revelation. These are all allegorical tales. They do, however, believe in the importance of keeping every single detail of Jewish law, as currently practiced by the fundamentalist Orthodox community. In his last three posts (1, 2, 3) (which represents only a few hours of Godol’s publishing career), GH constructed an elaborate theology for the ‘Real MO’ religion, complete with dogmatic coda and FAQ.

So why are there (virtually) no adhearants to this great new faith, even as Orthodoxy continues to thrive? As many commentors pointed out, this is just a re-casting of ‘Conservadox’ or ‘Orthoprax’ ideology, two slivers of Judaism too insignificant to fill the 10:30 shachris room in the Sphardisha Shule.

Fundamentalism is sustainable, with all of its clear ideals and isolationism. Non-belief is sustainable for its rational causation. Many other systems of spiritual thought are sustainable (to a greater or lesser degree) if they are at least somewhat self-consistent. But the combination of an all-encompassing and controlling system of halacha with a flexible view on the origins of law, that doesn’t have much staying power. It is simply too contradictory to make sense for the long run. You are, on the one hand training yourself (and your children) to not take bible stories literaly or to atribute what is taught directly to God. And, othe the other hand, you are maintaining that doing each mithzvah perfectly is a fulfilment of God's will. Sorry, I understand the rationals, but they just crumble.

But, at least for today, the GH is the actual Godol Hador (or L. Ron Hubbard) of a great newborn faith – ‘Real Modern Orthodoxy’.

I wonder if they’ll get the hagadah out in time.