Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Blogger's New Clothes

I'd like to recommend another new blog in the 'skeptic' category. "The Emperor is Naked" is not exactly 'new' to the blogging world. In his introduction, he writes the following:

I'm a frum skeptic ex-yeshiva guy. I've been active in the jblog world for a while, so if you've been following the ongoing dialogue on skepticism in Orthodoxy, you probably know me under my other identity.

Well, I'm not clever enough to figure out who this person is, but I very much enjoyed his first few posts (this one and this one).

So, welcome, whoever you are!

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Tuesdays with Mortality

I guess we all assume that we are immortal (until something happens to disabuse us). But as well as this naive assumption, I also grew up believing that death was not the end - that I would live forever, cared for by God. I believed that everything which happened to me was part of His plan, and that however bad it was it would be alright in the end. I believed that I was protected. ... It's pretty mindblowing to really accept that I, my self, am simply the product of a lot of chemical and biological interactions. I'm not sure I've got it yet, and I'm not sure I'm happy with it either (accepting this stuff means accepting that I will die when my body does).

This is part of a longer post which appeared on an agnostic/atheist discussion group.

Truth be told, whether we are believers or not, how we each deal with our own death fills a wide spectrum of emotions. It is often said that “there is no such thing as a drowning atheist”. It may be equally true that there is no such thing as a drowning theist who accepts their own sudden demise with complete confidence in their continued existence. Or, to be more fair about it, there are very few people in either category who have total faith in their own conclusions about their own mortality.

Many reasons are put forward for why people go on believing things which they cognitively understand to be irrational. (In fact, the Great and Powerful Godol Hador of Oz is just discovering this issue in a series of fascinating posts.) Certainly, the mortality issue runs very deeply through our conscious and subconscious motives.

We’re not usually aware of it, but there is a certain part of our mind in which we envision ourselves dangling over the abyss, clinging to a rope. The all powerful voice is saying “Okay, here’s the deal; accept me and I’ll be happy to keep holding the rope. Reject me and, well, there’s no one else here to do the holding.”

So what happens when you do finally give up your idea of afterlife (or reincarnation, or continued consciousness, etc.). It is quite a shock. As the quote from the Atheist forum says, getting there is a process. It’s a little bit like finding out that you have a terminal illness called ‘life’, and you have to go through the stages of grief for yourself. Of course, the well touted ‘Five Stages of Grief’ (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance) don’t apply here. For one thing we’re starting after denial has ended (though perhaps one could substitute 'avoidance') and for another thing, there’s no one there to bargain with.

So what is the grief process? It’s different, I’m sure, for everyone. For me, it is tightly wrapped up in the much larger issue of reconstructing a post-theism life purpose (which is the subject of a future post).

I can, however, say a few basic certainties:

- It’s sad. Living forever, in my opinion, would be great. Death sucks.

- Life is far more precious to me as a realist then it ever was for me as a theist. Life is NOT the anteroom, it’s the main event.

- Your thoughts are NOT going to be here after you, so if you want to do something with lasting importance, take action.

And perhaps the simplist truth on the subject:
“Mortality is the price we pay for Life.”

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Unequal Souls

When I was 15, and attending high school in Baltimore, I was once drawn into one of those long, late night bull sessions in the bais medrash. The debate started with an offhand comment that a friend of mine had made as we were walking out after maariv. A small discussion began with a me and a few other kids, but as the debate went on and on and grew louder and more passionate, other students, including some of the older yeshiva boys wandered over and joined in, until the group had grown to about 30 boys.

The topic was whether non-Jews have souls or not. I took the position that they did, although I was certainly no expert on the subject.

Every other boy in the room took the position that they did not.

I was badly outgunned. By the end of the discussion, which finally broke up in the early hours of the morning, I was exhausted, frustrated and angry – still clinging to my apparently unfounded notion that goyim have souls.

People can argue about the ultimate source of morality, but one thing which I can identify for certain is the ultimate source of immorality. It is the creation of a super-race and/or of a sub-race of a segment of mankind. Once this is done, the path has been paved for some of the most heinous crimes of our history.

One can nitpick about whether some of the ancient commandments of the Torah are morally acceptable; Amalek, women’s rights, etc., and the apologists can rummage through their bag of tricks and come up with their rationalizations. We can congratulate ourselves about how moral and socially responsible we are as a people. But, in the end, if the life of a Jew is more important than the life of a non-Jew, then what we have here is racism in the purist form.

I am aware of how inflammatory this issue is. The statements in the Talmud and Rishonim which differentiate between Jewish and Gentile life and property are widely cited in anti-Semitic propaganda pieces, alongside abject forgeries and misquotes. The Modern Orthodox community, at least, has become highly sensitive of what a lightning rod the issue is. About two years ago there was a micro-scandal involving a brief piece published in YU’s Beit Yitzchak Journal, which only mentioned in passing some of the less politically correct opinions.

I am also very aware of how many orthodox Jews are highly moral and fair minded people. So, for those with enough empathy and intellect, religious beliefs do not have to be the determining factor in moral behavior. As with everything else in Torah, one can argue both ways on this issue, and certainly the Talmud is filled with contradictory messages about the laws which govern non-Jews. So those within the orthodox community who are uncomfortable with the Jewish Spiritual Supremacy theories have room to find a way to believe in equality.

But, still, thirty years after my high school debate, non-Jews are still though to be very much ‘less than Jews’ in the yeshiva world. The examples of areas where goyim have reduced legal status are many. I won’t recite them because I do not want to feed the polemic.

If your frum, you may be insulted by all this, and I do not mean this as a general attack on Orthodoxy. But before you click away and forget this, perhaps make a note to talk to your kids about it.

After all, one of my ex yeshiva friends may be their rebbe.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Did you hear the one about the Karaite and the...

The ever fascinating and erudite Mississippi Fred McDowell, (master of delta slide), of On the Main Line, posted a ‘folk tale’ about a run-in between the Jews and Karaites during the Ottoman Empire. While the subject matter is extremely interesting, the story smacks of the same condescending satire which is used in ridiculing whichever group is currently being subject to derision.

I (apparently) can’t even spell Karaite, but, not to be left out, I posted a folk tale of my own as a comment. I am transcribing it here for your reading enjoyment (or as a point of invaluable advice if you are ever in a similar situation).

About twenty years ago, a rich, powerful Karite in New York wanted to marry the beautiful daughter of a rabbi. After stalling for as long as he could, the rabbi finally agreed to the marriage, but set one condition. Before the wedding, the Karite must go to Israel and see the Kotel. Although the Karite had never flown, he eagerly agreed to the condition. The rabbi took him to the airport, bought him a ticket, and made sure that he was safely on the plane. When he got home, his wife asked him “how could you agree to such a terrible thing?” The rabbi replied, “Don’t worry. Everyone else understood that they should actually get IN the plane. But our Karite friend took things a bit too literally. He fell off the wing at about 5,000 feet.” (Apologies to George Carlin.)

Monday, May 08, 2006

Welcome, and welcome back...

First of all, I am pleased and relieved to see that Ger Tzadik has returned from the black hole from whence he vanished. His excuses for not blogging are rather lame, (my own theory being that he gave up Judaism for Lent, or was hanging out with the really cute Hindu girl down in marketing). But at least he graced us with a Monte Python line upon his return.

On a (way too) serious note, I'd like to welcome a two interesting new writers to the "Posters from the Edge" list.

First is the excellent and interesting (and, yes, somewhat obscure) Knowledge Problems, by Big S skeptic. While I think that you will enjoy the writing and ideas, I must warn you that he has (and I've researched this extensively) the worst titles ever used for blog posts - making the GH's puns and 70's song take offs look like pure poetry by comparison. That said, he is a very smart guy with a lot to say. If any of you have sons in yeshiva, I recommend that you (overlook the title and) read this post (especially the part about the Kitzur, which was, believe it or not, used as a sex ed book in Baltimore, when I was in high school).

If you are Frum and are looking for a skeptic who is really intent on picking a fight with you, or if you're just interested in another perspective, and some interesting reading, I can recommend Just Me's blog Recoveing Ortho Skeptic. Before you get turned off by some of the content and graphics, I suggest reading this post. Beneath all that skeptical scorn beats the heart of a poet.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Gods and Imaginary Friends

The following is an excerpt from an extremely eloquent post by Chana. In it, she captures, with great power and honesty, the close, loving, trusting empathetic relationship which one forges with God.

The most intimate relationship we can form is when we expose this vulnerable part of ourselves to another, remove all masks or pretences, forget to consider what the other will think but simply continue as you truly are. It is the most frightening thing we ever do. We allow another to see us, to observe our nakedness, not of physical bodies but of our minds, hearts, souls. We do not need to speak to make ourselves heard. It this action that is so eloquent, and it is because it is so rare that it is always suspect, for people will give themselves over to base, vulgar ideas to avoid understanding.

How many people have we met that know us in this true sense? We are lucky if there is even one. One to see us as both our better self and the worst demon, the human being in his entirety. One to view us without shame. And one to whom we can be revealed.

And beyond people, who is it but God?

When you leave a lifetime of religious practice, many of the disruptions which you experience are easy to predict and obvious to observe. Certainly the ‘extrinsic’ challenges are tangible; leaving religion can disrupt virtually all of ones key interpersonal relationships, and can fundamentally alter how one identifies with the world at large.

But, as difficult as the extrinsic adjustments are, one of the most disorienting experiences of leaving faith, at least for myself, is the loss of the Personal God. The Personal God takes shape in our minds as we pass through life, listening to each thought, bearing witness to each deed. We converse endlessly with our God. Sometimes we plead. Sometimes we discuss our quandaries. Sometimes we celebrate our triumphs.

This God understands us as only a lifelong friend and confidant may. He empathizes with our difficulties. He cheers our moral victories and our personal achievements – even the secret ones of which no one else knows. He gently scolds our failings –understanding us nonetheless.

Each thought we have is not lost. It gains immortality in the eternal consciousness of God. Each minute deed that we do, or even intend to do, is credited and preserved everlasting. Our Personal God is omniscient – all knowing and all understanding of everything that is ourselves.

And, when you no longer believe? What a terrible loss. Your best friend and benfactor, the witness to all of your life struggles and achievements must now leave you. You are growing up, and the imaginary friends of childhood have no place in your adult world.

And yet, he remains.

“Go.” you say. “You don’t exist! You are not God! Go away!”

But he lingers. “Be reasonable, I am still the one who knows you best.”

“Who are you then? Why should I keep you with me?”

And, very slowly, through the reflection of years and the many turns of life, an answer begins to emerge.

“I am the consciousness which you created. I teach you not the mysteries of the ages, but that which you already know. I hold not a morality which comes from On High, but that which you have forged for yourself. As you advance, I thrive. As you choose, I guide. I am not the voice of ultimate good, but I am the reflection of what is best in your own self.”